Navigating Generational Differences in the Workplace

workplace generations

by Allan Daly, Client Engagement Director, Hays Ireland

The generational gap – or the differences in outlook between one age group and another – can create disconnects that can be hard to overcome, particularly in the workplace. This is not a new phenomenon – generations throughout history have been responsible for setting their own trends and making their own cultural impact – but for the first time ever, our global workforce now has five different generations co-existing alongside one another. For organisations, dispelling the ‘us vs them’ frame of mind that can arise as a result presents a significant challenge, but it is essential to both capturing the unique experiences and ideas that exist within a multi-generational workforce and cultivating common understanding between them.

At a glance: how to navigate generational differences in the workplace

  • Understand what makes generations different
  • Find out what purpose means to people
  • Provide learning support across the board
  • Create psychologically safe team environments
  • Be open to permitting different ways of working

It’s natural, as human beings, to gravitate towards what we find familiar. In the workplace, this has the propensity to cause divisions, as discrepancies in perspective can often create mistrust. It’s up to organisational leaders to allocate time and resource towards improving their teams’ understanding of one another and forging a commonality that will improve collaboration and enable better decision making.

Our 2024 Salary & Recruiting Trends guide – a compilation of trusted and comprehensive insights into the ever-evolving world of work – provides a series of recommendations for employers on turning talent challenges into opportunities, including how to make the most of intergenerational working:

1. Understand what makes generations different

In order to harness the benefits of age diversity, it’s essential to understand firstly where they align and where they differ. According to our research, different age groups have different preferences when it comes to what they’re looking for in a role. For example, employees of all ages believe the most attractive draw to a role is job security – however, this is more important to those of higher age groups than lower age groups. An engaging and supportive team culture is the second most important aspect to professionals of all age groups apart from those aged 30-39, for whom tailored flexible working policies are the second most important factor.

Having open, two-way conversations with teams about what they value in their role and how this could be improved can help employers understand what’s expected of them – more specifically, what they see as essential to an inclusive and respectful workplace. Depending on the generation, ideas around what this constitutes are likely to differ, and it’s vital that all opinions are seen to be valid and worthy of exploring. This could even take the form of a focus group discussion where employees can give feedback in a judgement-free space.

2. Find out what purpose means to people

Though younger age groups are typically considered to be more motivated by an organisation’s purpose and the notion of creating positive change within their role, our research shows that the vast majority of employees of all ages (83%) consider purpose to be an important aspect of a new job.

Giving different generations a platform for discussing both where they align and where they differ will enable organisations to establish a healthier, more cohesive team culture. You could, for example, consider facilitating multi-generational group discussions about what purpose personally means to them on both a personal and professional level. It’s likely that many of the answers will turn out to be the same, which will both establish a sense of common understanding and put your team in a better place for working together collaboratively in a bid to find meaning from their work.

3. Provide learning support across the board

Professionals value learning and upskilling opportunities highly, whatever stage they’re at in their career. When looking more closely at how different age groups want to be supported in their upskilling, we found that those aged 30-39 are more likely to want their employer to invest in training (56%) compared to other age groups, whilst a higher proportion of those aged 40-49 (49%) would like time during working hours to complete training.

Providing a range of opportunities for improving on existing skills and acquiring new ones – whether that’s with a traditional offsite training course or with online bitesize learning – will demonstrate that you’re keen to accommodate people’s preferred learning styles. Offering mentoring programmes – not only to younger cohorts but older ones, such as reverse mentoring – also demonstrates your commitment to being recognised as an employer who values lifelong learning.

4. Create psychologically safe team environments

Feeling psychologically safe – or able to speak up with ideas and questions without fear of recrimination – is a critical aspect of a role for many. However, the converging of different generations can add a complex dimension to this, and make conflict more likely. If generational differences are to be used as learning opportunities, it’s important that employees feel they can engage in discussion without being dismissed as either inexperienced or out of touch.

By fostering a culture built on trust and psychological safety, leaders can facilitate space for more freethinking and wider perspectives, something that is needed if innovation at an organisation is to flourish.

5. Be open to permitting different ways of working

Generational diversity in the workplace has steadily increased over the years, as well as diversity of many other kinds. Despite this, many organisations are still applying blanket ways of working regardless of the varying needs and preferences of their employees. Our research suggests, however, that what younger cohorts want from an employer can differ greatly to their colleagues in management or the over 50s. For example, professionals aged 30-39 and over 50s believe they work most productively in the office/workplace (44% and 41% respectively), whereas those aged under 30 or 40-49 consider their productivity levels higher when working from home (both 46%).

Consider surveying your workforce about how they work most productively – and endeavour to adapt your practices and processes where possible to accommodate them. Remember that flexibility is a vital element of an equitable and inclusive working model, and there is support available when it comes to designing it.

About the author

Allan has 24 years’ recruitment experience in the Irish market and is currently Hays Ireland’s Client Engagement Director. He is responsible for ensuring a best-in-class recruitment service for a myriad of clients across several key sectors. Having supported many organisations as they enter and navigate the Irish talent landscape, he has designed and delivered large-scale hiring campaigns, but also worked closely with smaller enterprises who are looking at scaling up. Allan possesses a unique understanding of several key industries, including utilities, energy, technology, financial services, banking, construction, and professional services.