15 Dec

Why it’s Important to Rip Off Generational Labels

Earlier this year, it was reported that there are now five generations in the workplace, reflecting the fact that most Australians are now working longer to achieve “a comfortable retirement”.

While it’s useful to understand the diversity of worker ages, it can be unhelpful – and even damaging – to embrace generational labels in the context of employment.

Generational labels were first used after World War I, with the concept of the ‘lost generation’. This term referred to the loss of so many young people during the war. After that, terms like Baby Boomers, Gen XYZ and Millennials were embraced largely as artificial devices to create new market segments. In truth, there’s not much science behind these labels.

A more helpful approach is to think of people in terms of their lifespan phases and their experience. For example, regardless of their year of birth, it’s normal for young people to push boundaries and champion ways of doing things better to benefit themselves, their communities and the world around them. We did it. Our parents did it. Their parents did it. It’s natural and it’s actually what we need young people to do. Similarly, it’s very common for older people to have different drivers such as shorter-term returns and legacy issues.

While it’s valid to recognise that personal drivers are likely to change over time, embracing generational stereotypes is harmful because it breeds discrimination and unconscious bias. For example, when younger people are called ‘digital natives’ and older people are called ‘digital immigrants’ it perpetuates stereotypes that are not founded in science. The research we’ve read indicates that technical ability is the same across all lifespan stages – it is not moderated by age. Understanding this, as just one example of age-related bias, will stop younger people who are not strong in technology from feeling like failures and older people with the right capability and curiosity from being excluded from workplace opportunities relating to technology.

To help promote the benefits of age-based diversity and overcome unconscious bias, there are three things organisations can do.

Boost Leadership Capabilities

One of the best ways to harness the power of age-based diversity is to bring people of different ages together through their similarities, such as a common purpose or business and sustainability goals. Through effective leadership, it is possible to focus on what people have in common not on their differences. In turn, this boosts inclusion and team performance.

Explore Culture by Age, Not Generation

By understanding the true picture of age diversity in an organisation, it is possible to unearth and address age-related needs. These needs may include wellbeing requirements, flexible work options, career pathways, management styles, learning and development offerings, and cyber risk mitigation. It is likely the most effective ways to meet these needs will differ for people depending on which lifespan phase they are in.

Review Cultural Language and Structures

It will also be useful to review the organisational language used and ways of working to ensure generational stereotypes are not being reinforced inadvertently. Using the ‘digital native’ example, the review could ensure assumptions are not being made that all young people are good at technology and that people are receiving the training they need. Similarly, it’s important to make sure that older people are offered appropriate opportunities in the technology space and that others are not making assumptions about them being ‘too far behind’ or ‘too old for it to matter’.

How can JOST&Co help?

To help organisations rip off generational labels, address ageism and make the most of age diversity, our team can work with your leaders to help them recognise lifespan performance levers, undertake a cultural evaluation (including a diagnosis of age-related strengths and opportunities for improvement) and review learning and development frameworks, and their current state application for people in different lifespan stages.