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Whose workplace is it anyway?

A healthy workforce is one that represents and is represented by all five generations
HR folks need to pay attention to the changing needs of the diverse demographics, be it age, gender, or race. Shutterstock

By Suanne Nielsen

Perhaps, for the first time in the history of work, we have five different generations defining our workforce. For many of us, the workplace we are managing today, does not resemble the one we joined in the 70s or 80s. And that’s a good thing.

A healthy workforce is one that represents and is represented by all five generations.

Managing a multi-generational workforce is intertwined with the notion of managing diversity. HR folks need to pay attention to the changing needs of the diverse demographics, be it age, gender, or race.

More and more, people are generalizing about age groups — how they like or don’t like the millennials, or what the boomers stand for. The reality is that the rules that apply to diversity apply to generations: Treat people the way they would want to be treated. Don’t make assumptions about your colleagues.

The challenge for HR is to match people to the jobs they fit. When we bring in a human capital management technology such as Workday, there may be a bigger change management curve associated with training a baby boomer on new technology, whereas a younger university-level recruit may require no training on an intuitive software.

Different employees have different needs. This notion travels across industries. In the insurance sector, for example, we are seeing more and more AI solutions making underwriting decisions. This is a complete change in mindset for those who have been in the industry for awhile. They are finding that a lot of the rules and decisions they made are now being made by software. HR needs to find where such professionals can add more value.

Younger workers who are adept at social media can train the boomers to get up to speed. In June, Foresters organized a leadership development conference attended by 500 of our volunteer member leaders. One of the best-attended and highest rated events of the conference was a presentation by a 20-something junior employee who demystified Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for our member leaders.

Managing a multi-generational workforce is an exercise for HR to match people based on their strengths and weaknesses, and what’s needed for better business output.

Dwelling on generational differences leads us to pigeon-holing. Capitalizing on them enables us to build a strong corporate culture.

Don’t ignore the different demographics but evolve based on what they need.

Promote an age-neutral workplace by getting creative about your communications and harnessing the strengths of each generation. When you pay attention to cross-generational attitudes, you add more value to the bottom line. It increases workplace respect, productivity, and understanding. 

It’s important to individualize the company value proposition. Going more toward cash-based incentive programs provides more menu options for a multi-generational workforce. This is not easy to do because when you shop for group benefits plans, they must cover all employees. But to the extent possible, workplaces need to allow employees to pick and choose their benefits over the lifetime of their career.

Recruitment messages should be crafted carefully, so they speak to every single generation, and attract diverse talent.

There’s no denying that for a business, a multi-generational, diverse team paves the way for more flexibility, more market share, stronger and broader perspectives, more innovation, and more relatability. So, the business case is obvious.

Research by Korn Ferry Hay Group has shown that there’s one factor that unifies all generations — challenging and engaging work. No matter what generation you belong to, “opportunities to advance” and freedom of work are qualities you look for in any organization.

Leaders who excel in fostering an open work environment, are equipped with a broad range of leadership styles, are vulnerable, are self-aware, empathetic, and motivating are most likely to drive high performance uniformly across generations. 

When we talk about an age-diverse talent force, millennials and boomers dominate our conversations. But some say the hardest hit are the Gen X in middle-management positions who are responsible for executives above them, and new recruits who’ve just graduated. Gen-Xers, therefore, are required to handle a wider range of employee motivations and skillsets. No doubt, this presents a significant challenge to ensure that the scales remain balanced.

In a 2017 article in the Huffington Post, social scientist Mary Donohue, refers to generation X as the Marcia Brady of our times. She says, “Your organization is losing culture capital as boomers retire. Gen X possesses your intellectual capital. If you don't look after gen X, and this capital is depleted, your organization will find it tough to recover. You'll be left with an uninspired workforce and a customer base that will erode.”

Do you agree?

Mary Donohue will share findings from her latest research at SCNetwork’s Why is no-one talking to me? on Sept. 18.

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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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