Jo Geraghty


Working around the generation gap

Date added: 15th Oct 2015
Category: Culture of Diversity

True worth transcends the generations and the person you’re looking for cannot and should not be defined by age.

You’re sitting in an interview. It’s going well and you’ve got all those tricky little questions about your qualifications and your previous job history out of the way. Then comes the question which you have been dreading; where do you see yourself in three years time.

There was a time when the answer was easy; jobs were largely there for life and job progressions were virtually mapped out from day one. As a very junior employee making tea or distributing post, you quickly came to see the organisation as a layer cake of responsibilities in which the generations moved smoothly and inexorably up the ladder until they reached a plateau and rested there until retirement called. So the three year question was simply trying to ascertain whether you saw a chance for further progression or whether you felt you were nearing your personal plateau.

But that was then and this is now and nowadays it is rare to have a smooth progression through the world of work. People not only switch companies, they switch careers as well. The job which stood you in good stead in your early 20s is fairly unlikely to be the same one which carries you through your 30s. And whereas once your knowledge took care of career progression, nowadays employers are far more interested in a portfolio of skills and personal attributes.

One of the consequences of this move towards portfolio careers is that people are increasingly no longer juniors or seniors dependent on their age. And with the retirement age moving ever onwards, employers can find themselves managing not just a generation gap, but a gap of fifty years within the same department. Is this a problem? Well in truth the answer depends very much on the individual. Those that seek to conform to generational norms may have difficulty adapting to a multigenerational workplace. On the other hand, those who have embraced the opportunities offered by a changing world are more likely to be able to work happily alongside colleagues of any age.

The trick for employers is to ignore the stereotype and instead deal with the person. But it can be hard to ignore the stereotype when it is still being promulgated across the media. I stumbled on an interesting example of this recently in Vanity Fair in an article highlighting a range of differences across the generations. According to the article, when it comes to preferred methods of communication whilst Generation Z prefers Snapchat and Millennials like selfies, baby boomers use lawsuits and older generations again prefer guilt inducing phone calls. It has to be said that there was a lot in that article which made me smile and nod my head in recognition, but as I did so I realised that this was exactly the type of generational stereotyping which can cause problems in the workplace.

Perhaps young people are more likely to look for the next best thing whilst older generations may be more cynical having seen it all before. Perhaps in general those who have been brought up with the internet are more at ease using the internet, but there are plenty of older people around who have happily embraced modern technology and who can bring their life skills to bear on communicating across multiple platforms.

The lesson for employers in all of this is that they should stop seeing people in terms of their age or their department or their current job position and start seeing employees as people with a range of skills and aptitudes. True equality means helping every individual to make most of their own talents and true employee engagement comes from creating the conditions in which people can bring themselves and their skills in furtherance of the company’s aims.

Maybe it’s time for employers to stop asking where people see themselves in three years time and instead look to identify what people can bring to the organisation now. True worth transcends the generations and the person you’re looking for cannot and should not be defined by age.

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