Understanding Diversity in the Workforce: Part 1

For the first time in Australia’s workforce there are up to 5 generations working alongside each other, with nearly a 50 year age gap between the oldest and youngest employees. This breadth of age, combined with huge societal changes, presents complexities in the workplace surrounding different needs, attitudes, perspectives and working styles.

As history suggests, each generation believes they know more than their predecessors, and that the generation that follows them are lazy, disrespectful and arrogant. Yet if we break down these generations into “older” and “newer” we discover that often these differences are less about age and more about rapid changes in society that lead to a lack of understanding, or in many cases, a lack of integration.

Diversity is something I’ve always been drawn to – in another life I may have been an anthropologist! Not solely in the workplace, but simply the study of human nature and relationships, and the trends or differences that emerge between generations. For example, looking at the history of Australia’s workforce, our older generations have traditionally made quite engaged, loyal and hardworking employees. They are often devoted researchers, time-orientated individuals who work long hours, are early risers, and committed to putting in ‘the hard yard.’ Newer generations on the other hand have developed a mentality of working ‘smarter’ not harder, motivated by a work-life balance and ideal company culture. While no less hard working, younger generations are born communicators, confident, inherently digitally-savvy and driven by their values. Unlike their older counterparts who struggle with the ‘work-to-live’ attitude, younger generations embrace change and thrive on experience, purpose and recognition.

So how do two (or three, or four) groups of people from one end of the age bracket to the other come together? While societal changes and structures can indeed set us apart from our neighbour, learning how to manage different generations, understand their learning styles and tailor the way you manage your team to suit various needs is an essential skill of being a leader.

For example, almost 80% of millennials say they’d like their boss to act more like a coach or a mentor – which makes sense as these individuals are the newest to the workforce and are still learning their skills, nurturing their connections, and strongly value a positive company culture. On the other hand, ‘baby boomers’ are governed more so by ethics, fairness, dependability and consistency. They take less risks, but are in for the long run. They’re also more likely to leave a workplace due to salary, compared to newer generations who will stay in lower paying job if the culture is the right fit. Together these differences show how important it is for managers to be open, responsive and flexible in their leadership style, as well as acutely aware of who makes up their team, and how different they may be. 

The benefits of a multigenerational workforce are far reaching. Business have become varied in age, experience and breadth of thought, and teams become more flexible due to the advances in technology that keeps us connected. At a leadership level business decisions are usually stronger when combining broad generational perspectives, and tend to remain ahead of the curve by embracing creativity and innovation. Put simply, where younger generations bring fresh energy and an eagerness to change the world, older generations bring wisdom and vision unrivalled by any other demographic – and when united, different skillsets and ideas should flourish.

This idea of diversity in the workforce is not a novel concept, yet one that demands increasing attention and understanding as the sands of time shift. In Part 2 of this topic I’ll share some insights into the difficulties that may arise in multigenerational workplaces, and how you can work with your team to overcome challenges and thrive.

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