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The Generation Game – considering the needs of an age diverse workforce

October 20, 2016

I have been carrying out some research in partnership with the Leicestershire Fit for Work Service on the attitudes to employee health and wellbeing in the voluntary sector. One of the questions I’m asking is “How do organisations manage the health and wellbeing of a multigenerational workforce?” The replies to the question have been fairly consistent and usually start with “That’s a good question” and end in “We haven’t thought about that issue.”

I’m reasonably confident that view isn’t just confined to the voluntary sector, where, once you include volunteers it’s not uncommon to have staff between the ages of 18 and 80 working together delivering services.

Looking at the country as a whole, you can conclude that the picture is or will be similar in other sectors once you consider that;

  • In the near future the average age of the UK workforce is projected to be 43 years.
  • An increasing number of people who are in their 50’s now have no option but to continue working past traditional retirement ages because their pensions (private and Government) will not cover their living costs.
  • There are an increasing number of people who do not want to fully retire because they feel that working helps them to maintain their health.

With a steady increase in workforce’s where the youngest employee could be 16 and the oldest could be in their 70’s, the issue of a multigenerational workforce isn’t one that can simply be ignored.  In addition, recent research about the health of employees suggests that 1 in 3 of the working population (over 11m people) have at least one long term health condition, a % that is growing as we age (15% of 16-24 year olds, to 57% of 65-74 year olds) so employers have a challenge on their hands.

So what can organisations do? Well, one of the choices is whether to avoid or embrace this; I recently heard a CEO of a major employer in the UK imply that they didn’t really want to keep on employing people past the retirement age or you can take the view that there are some benefits of having a multigenerational workforce.

There is emerging evidence that a different approach on how you engage with a multigenerational workforce could be beneficial. Breaking down your workforce by generation can give an idea of the complexity of the issue.

Silent Generation:  Born before 1945

Baby Boomer: Born 1946-1964

Gen X: Born 1965-1980

Millennials: Born 1981-2000

Gen Z: Born after 1995

It is generally believed that different generations have different outlooks on work e.g. the Gen X “Work to Live” and the Baby Boomers “Live to Work” and that there is the emergence of the “Sandwich” generation who have child and carers responsibilities.

The main issue to engage your employees with is on their health. There is a large amount of evidence of the effects of poor health of employees in workplaces, with mental health issues continuing to rise. This year it has been reported that almost 1 in 6 of the working population have a diagnosable mental health condition and 9.9m days will be lost to work-related stress, anxiety and/or depression. There are some common issues across the generations that employees say affect their health; workload, flexibility, control, the relationship with their line manager and how sickness absence is managed.

There is also a growing argument that different approaches are required to meet the needs and expectations of different generations. An example of how this can be done is in office design, where we are beginning to see the rise of open plan offices being changed to a mixture of traditional desks, hot desks, open spaces and communication hubs.  These are modelled to suit the needs of each generation. A short time ago this was seen as something that a contemporary company like Google would do, but it is now filtering through to a wider range of other organisations.

I don’t think that there is anything specifically new about how you engage with a multigenerational workforce; the key is that the organisation has to be “well managed.”  We often see that training for line managers in the UK lags behind other more productive countries such as France.  Therefore, my vision of how an organisation can manage health and wellbeing effectively regardless of the age of their employees would include:

  • Managers who are trained in managing the expectations of multigenerational employees, with a particular emphasis on mental health issues. Devising the most flexible approach to how employees can carry out their work.
  • That staff have an appropriate level of control over workload.
  • Having a proportionate sickness absence policy, that doesn’t penalise employees with long term health conditions.

The issue of how organisations respond to an age diverse workforce is growing in importance and one that is seemingly being ignored from the research I’ve carried out so far.

If you would like to know more about the issues I’ve raised or to share your experiences of working with age-diverse colleagues, we are holding a free workshop as part of the Fringe Events that are accompanying the MADE Festival, on Wednesday 9th November 1.45 – 2.45pm at Electric Works.  For more details and to book a place click here.

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