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Boomers and millennials in the same team: From conflict to opportunity

Institute for Social Innovation

OK boomer. These two words, converted into a meme, became a trend among young people in 2019. They were the response delivered by thousands of young people and teenagers to comments from older people who criticised younger generations for their attitude to life and blamed them for the difficulties they face as a group. The expression even came to be used in the New Zealand parliament.

Beyond internet debates and memes, the expression “OK boomer” sums up the weariness with which younger generations receive advice or lessons from people in other generations, regarding them as an outcome of times past, and irrelevant to a world that is very different from that of their youth. This intergenerational conflict is aggravated in the Western world by a very different economic, social and environmental situation from that experienced by previous generations.

In turn, the generations born during the second half of the 20th century have trouble understanding the motivations and concerns of younger people. This gap in the outlook on life has been widened by the impact that new technologies have had on our day-to-day existence and especially on our working environment.

Companies have, in fact, been one of the points of contact – and conflict – between these generations, and their management has become one of the challenges that organisations must face in order to make the most of their teams’ talent.

This challenge was put to debate in the latest session in the series Connecting through the workplace organised by the Esade Institute for Social Innovation and ISS Spain, which brought together experts to analyse the implications of four or even five generations sharing the same workplace, with the challenges and opportunities this involves.

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In 2050, adults over 60 will amount to 22% of the population, double today’s figure. In fact, people aged between 55 and 64 already represent 64% of the workforce of OECD countries. This aging of the population, inevitably accompanied by a postponement of the retirement age, will progressively change the labour market, which at the same time will gradually incorporate new generations, such as Generation Z, and consolidate the presence of those who are already there, such as the millennials, who in 2025 will total 75% of the workforce worldwide.

For the experts who participated in the webinar Connecting with people: Managing intergenerational talent, successfully managing a multigenerational workforce involves two key aspects: the design of a set of generational diversity management strategies that encourage a culture of diversity, and policies for learning and access to knowledge.

Policies for learning and access to knowledge

The massive acceleration of technological progress and digital transformation make lifelong learning and training a must. The context of ongoing change in the work sphere forces employees to reinvent themselves several times in the course of their professional life. And this is the case regardless of their age, although it is important to adapt to the needs of each worker.

“In an environment like the present one we have to change, and it’s been a mistake to give the same training to a generation Xer as to a new graduate. That’s a mistake, because they’ve got different perceptions and expectations. A baby boomer in today’s environment is looking out to keep his or her job; a gen Xer wants to be a boss, and a gen Y or Zer wants to change the world,” explains José Luis Risco, Human Resources Manager at EY Spain.

The key to any management or communication is to find the meeting point or common ground

However, although it is important to match training with each profile it is no panacea, as to segment working groups by ages is to over-simplify. For this reason, Claudio Hernández, Learning and Developing Manager at ISS Facility Services Spain, says that “the key to any management or communication is to find the meeting point or common ground. You have to find the common ground between different groups and start to grow from there.”

Mercedes Valcarcel, Director General of the Generation Spain Foundation, agrees on the need to get rid of prejudices about capabilities. “The success of these realities is determined not only by technological training, but also by competence building, and a certain amount of flexibility in our own cultural prejudices about who can do what. In reality, we can all cope with whatever we want to cope with, given the right training.”

Managing generational diversity

The biggest challenge faced by the human resources professionals of any organisation is how to accommodate expectations and make teams cohesive, regardless of their members’ age, avoiding stereotypes and segmentation by generation.

One good example of how stereotypes can be limiting and counterproductive is the way older people, considered to be more technology-adverse, have adapted to working from home and using digital tools. In this crisis, workers of all ages have become experts in telecommuting.

“We must assimilate that no generation is better than any other, and value what other generations have and ours lacks, and so create a strong team. The main opportunity to be had is to get the most out of each generation and create a mixed, high-performance team,” says Claudio Hernández.

Intergenerational diversity affords a great opportunity for work teams to be not only more innovative but also more effective

Intergenerational diversity affords a great opportunity for work teams to be not only more innovative but also more effective. According to recent studies, companies with above-average diversity in their management teams generated 19% more innovation-related revenue than companies with below-average diversity and up to 30% more capacity to detect and reduce commercial and reputational risks.

“For organisations to be able to seize the opportunities offered by an intergenerational setting, it’s necessary to build bridges, maintain an environment that facilitates continuous learning, cultivate trust between the various generations, and lead purposefully and with inclusiveness and diversity criteria,” concludes Esade Institute for Social Innovation researcher Sonia Ruiz.

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