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Your workforce spans five generations – are you leading them effectively?

South African leaders are navigating a historically significant challenge: managing the widest generation gap ever recorded. Today’s workplace is extraordinarily diverse in age, hosting five generations—Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z—all working together.

We’ve also entered an era where knowledge, expertise, and a willingness to learn define wisdom, not age, which means the success of your organisation might hinge on creating mutual mentorship and embracing rapid knowledge-sharing methods across these five generations. It’s no small ask – but the benefits of leveraging the different strengths that each generation brings to their work could result in a critical competitive advantage for employers.

The way different generations approach work has evolved significantly over time, influenced by technological advances, cultural shifts, and economic changes. Each generation tends to have distinct attitudes, work styles, and expectations that can impact their behaviour in the workplace.

  • Baby Boomers, typically born between 1946 and 1964, often value loyalty and a strong work ethic. They are known for their dedication, reliability, and willingness to put in long hours. This generation values face-to-face communication and tends to prefer a more formal, hierarchical workplace structure. They also place a high emphasis on job security and benefits, which reflect the economic prosperity and job market stability during their formative years.
  • Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, introduced a shift towards work-life balance, influenced by economic downturns and the rise of dual-income families during their upbringing. This generation is known for its independence, resourcefulness, and scepticism towards authority. They value flexibility, autonomy, and are more likely to question the status quo compared to their predecessors. Gen Xers are also very adaptable and were among the first to start integrating technology into the workplace, though they maintain an appreciation for traditional communication methods.
  • Millennials, or Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1996, are characterised by their familiarity with digital technology, having grown up during the internet boom. This generation values meaningful work and is driven by a desire to make an impact. They favour collaborative, less hierarchical work environments, and expect transparency and regular feedback from their employers. Millennials are also known for valuing experiences over material rewards and seek out opportunities for personal and professional growth within their roles.
  • Generation Z, the latest to enter the workforce, born from 1997 onward, has been shaped by global connectivity and the ubiquity of social media. This generation is highly tech-savvy, values authenticity, and is more concerned with issues like diversity, equality, and sustainability. Gen Z prefers quick, efficient communication, often through digital channels, and looks for flexibility such as remote work options. They are also entering the workforce during a time of significant economic uncertainty, which may influence their job choices towards those offering stability and opportunities for rapid advancement.

The interaction among these generational groups can lead to a dynamic yet complex workplace. Companies that understand and adapt to the diverse needs and strengths of each generation can create more effective teams and harness a wide range of talents and perspectives, ultimately leading to a more productive and innovative organisation. Understanding these generational trends helps organisations tailor their management strategies, recruitment efforts, and workplace policies to accommodate an increasingly diverse workforce.

Lifelong learning has taken on a new meaning

According to Forrester research, Generation Z began entering the workforce in the mid-2010s, with Millennials currently constituting 35% of the workforce. By 2030, these two groups are expected to comprise nearly 74% of all workers. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers and Generation X, who represent over half of today’s workforce, are poised to serve as ‘Modern Elders’, mentoring younger colleagues while updating their own skills for the evolving post-pandemic job landscape.

It’s also important to note that while ‘Modern Elders’ will still be mentors, the traditional top-down mentorship process, where senior executives guide newcomers to develop their skills and professional growth, is changing. More Baby Boomers are re-entering the workforce post-retirement, and so there’s an increasing need for these seasoned professionals to receive guidance from younger colleagues to navigate modern workplace dynamics effectively.

Combining this range of skills and experiences can have a powerful impact on innovation, if the company culture encourages sharing and collaborating. Older employees often have a wealth of industry knowledge and a deep understanding of company history, which can be invaluable in strategic decision-making. Younger employees, on the other hand, might bring fresh ideas and proficiency in new technologies and trends. This blend can foster a creative environment where traditional methods are balanced with cutting-edge approaches, leading to more effective problem-solving.

It’s not just knowledge sharing that benefits the business. Having employees from different generations can enhance a company’s ability to connect with a broader customer base. Different age groups may have different preferences and behaviours, and a diverse workforce can help companies understand and cater to these nuances more effectively. For example, younger employees may be more adept at engaging with customers through digital platforms, while older employees might excel in personalised, face-to-face interactions.

A diverse age range in the workplace can also promote better team dynamics and improve employee morale. It encourages respect and understanding across generations, helping to break down stereotypes and reduce age-related biases. This can lead to a more inclusive and supportive work environment, where all employees feel valued and motivated to contribute their best.

Managing multi-generational employees

As we’ve seen, the future of successful organisations hinges on reciprocal mentorship. Millennials and Generation Z bring a unique perspective, having been raised during an era of the internet and rapid technological progress, equipping them with skills that could assist older generations, including Baby Boomers and even Traditionalists. However, younger workers often hesitate to share their insights with senior colleagues, fearing potential conflict or embarrassment.

Leadership is critical in overcoming these barriers.

To foster a culture of mutual mentorship among diverse age groups in your organisation, start by embodying the Modern Elder role. Regardless of your age or your team’s age demographics, commit to mentoring your employees.

Steps to initiate this process include:

  • Identify team members who could benefit from your expertise and from whom you could learn.
  • Define each person’s roles, responsibilities, and mentorship goals.
  • Encourage an open exchange of ideas and experiences, even within your expertise.
  • Schedule regular times for questions and updates.
  • This approach not only initiates mentorship but also sets a replicable standard for everyone in the organisation.

From a talent management and recruitment perspective, focus on hiring and supporting employees who want to not only share their knowledge and experiences, but learn from others at well. At Kelly, we are galvanised by Adcorp Group’s purpose to enable agile, focused and skilled workforces for the future. Workforces that are diverse and inclusive; workforces that make a positive contribution to society.

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