Australian companies face an unprecedented challenge in managing five different generations in the workplace

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

This is an historic era for Australian business. For the first time, five different generations are working together in companies across the country.

While many Australian businesses are looking to harness the wisdom of Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, the adaptability of Gen X, and the youthful enthusiasm of Gen Z, few have grasped the scale of the challenge if they want to be successful in this rapidly changing world.

I’m in my late 50s. Like many of my peers, I realise the workforce I’m responsible for today looks less and less like the workforce I joined in the 1980s. As my career progressed and I took on more responsibility, I learned to manage, but the teams which my generation are responsible for now are quite different from those we were trained to lead.

A lot of the things I’ve learned about managing these diverse teams I’ve learnt through doing — through trial and error — and frankly, that hasn’t always been the best for the people I’ve led and the organisations I’ve worked for.

This experience, coupled with what I’m seeing today, tells me more people in management positions in Australia need to be equipped for the challenges and opportunities of managing a multigenerational workforce.

The advantage of adapting workplace practices to the new reality is that organisations will get the best out of their people as well as delivering more rewarding careers, by making their workplace an even better place to be.

The impact goes beyond the bottom line. People coming into the workforce today have different expectations of work than many of those already in a job, so it’s going to impact the way businesses approach issues of culture and values.

I spoke to a graduating MBA class recently and in our conversations they were far less interested in the career and money than they were about the type of organisation someone like them would feel good working for.

They talked about their values.

This values-based approach shapes the way many younger people think about work.

Traditionalists, Baby Boomers and much of Gen X tend to look for security. Many are in the saving stage of their lives. Values and culture remain important to them, but often they are focussed on making those years of employment, full-time or part-time, work hard for them in terms of financial and other forms of security.

It used to be said that strategy eats tactics for breakfast, but more recently this has evolved to the realisation that culture can eat strategy for lunch. This reflects the rising importance of culture and values. Business leaders need to understand culture as a motivator, particularly for younger generations.

I’ve long thought managers need to be given much more support and training in how to get the best out of the increasingly diverse groups of people with whom they work.

Take technology as one very obvious area of change where many companies have invested heavily. If you’re a manager in an Australian firm, some of your highest skilled people in understanding technology will be some of your youngest, while many senior people may be relatively naive when it comes to emerging technologies in the workplace.

That’s one example where the multigenerational workforce presents managers with a challenge. The traditional sources of expertise and authority may not always be the best sources of wisdom or power.

It’s often the case that the man or woman with the grey hair and the title dominates in meetings, and managers need to help younger people to communicate their insights and their knowledge in a way that will be understood and respected by other people.

This is a complex subject and we do have to be mindful not to stereotype generations, but it’s an important issue for business and society.

I don’t think we’ve done enough, frankly, to help managers in Australian firms manage multigenerational workforces as well as they could.

That’s why the Australian Chamber decided to launch the NextGen in Business event series, bringing some of the best practitioners in the world to Australia to share their experiences, and putting some of Australia’s best business practitioners up there alongside them.

Many conversations on generational divides concentrate on Millennials and now Gen Z and Baby Boomers, but there is a particular challenge faced by the generation in the middle, Generation X. These are people in management positions where they are responsible for people who are older and younger than them, and they need to understand a range of motivations.

For some people that can be quite confronting, and they will need to use different communications strategies and styles.

If ever there was a case that one size doesn’t fit all, it’s the modern Australian workplace.

Why are we challenging businesses to think about this now? Quite simply markets are changing more rapidly than ever before, the presence of five generations in the workforce is rapidly becoming the reality for many Australian businesses, and being customer-centric and understanding how to beat competitors who are constantly changing shape is critical.

And you need to move fast; first mover advantage has never been more critical. Now new methods and better practices, from almost anywhere in the world, can be found out and imitated in a matter of hours. So it makes sense to take on this challenge now, because the future of multigenerational workforces has already arrived.

The NextGen in Business event series takes place in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in May featuring international speakers including the co-author of Netflix’s culture deck Patty McCord and leading business transformation specialist Tom Goodwin. Click here to see more details and get special pre-sale ticket rates.

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