Generational Gaps at Work
Corporate Culture

Generational Gaps at Work
Do they matter?

You’ll often find a mix of people at the workplace. In the increasingly globalised modern office, variation exists across ethnicity, gender, age and more. This is a result of shifting conversations around diverse recruitment, the inclusion agenda, and equitable workplace practices. It also has to do with older generations opting to work well past traditional retirement age. In the United States alone the labour market is projected to grow at an average rate of 0.6 per cent per year between 2016 and 2026. However, the 65-74 age group is projected to grow by a whopping 4.2 per cent annually.¹ Put this into a different perspective, the average workplace often has five different generations working at the same time: The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Much discourse suggests so many different types of people could be a blessing, or if not managed properly, spell trouble for productivity.

There are various stereotypes surrounding old and young employees. Older employees may view Millennials and Gen Z as less skilled, see them as ‘job hoppers’, or find interaction with them difficult. Some even struggle to bridge the language gap. Moreover, Gen Z may find older employees to be out of touch with latest technology trends, modes of communication, and even social discourse. While logic dictates this diversity empowers a true reflection of the societal microcosm, these different age cohorts working together may lower productivity by if not actively addressing the gap in values, skills and communication.

The dilemma

Let’s take one of the gaps. According to a study conducted on 403 employees (executives, managers, and junior staff) in 2018, usage of social media and instant messaging at work is driving the biggest wedge in communication between millennials and older colleagues. Nearly a third of millennials and Gen X say they used instant messaging to communicate with colleagues and clients in the past year, while only 12% of baby boomers say the same.²

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On the other hand, existing empirical research provides mixed evidence for generational differences in important values and attitudes. A sample of 8040 applicants at two organisations was used to test 3 commonly held stereotypes as hypotheses: Baby Boomers displayed fewer job mobility behaviours; Baby Boomers display more instances of compliance; Generation X are less likely to work overtime compared to Boomers and Millennials. Although the study's effect size remains a concern in making larger conclusions, it is clear that generational membership has an impact on workplace behaviour. It is not as strong as suggested by commonly held stereotypes, and in group differences are greater than differences within groups, but the evidence does need to inform how we deal with different individuals based on their generational background.³

HR professionals and companies see these different viewpoints as a dilemma. Should they spend time trying to figure out whether generational gaps matter significantly? Or is it better to look at differences between employees to create workplace inclusion? The latter is a more viable solution to make quick gains in your organisation. Moreover, looking at communication and productivity barriers overall allows the formation of a holistic approach, rather than one based on generational differences alone.

Where to start

Here are some steps leaderships can take to improve teamwork across the entire organisation:

1. Ask, don't assume

Leadership and HR should have one-to-ones or group meetings with teams and departments that seem to be struggling. Identify kinds of problems they’re facing. These could range from miscommunication to low morale. Getting to the root cause may help in identifying if it’s a generational gap problem or something else. Tailor solutions accordingly.

2. Create opportunity for collaboration

A lot of inter-generational contention in the workplace is based on bias and stereotypes. An older employee may not want to delegate a complex task to a fresh graduate simply because they lack trust in efficiency or ability. This may snowball into the younger cohort feeling unsupported professionally. Creating opportunities for collaboration such as having different age groups be a part of one project team can lead to knowledge transference across the board and upskilling everyone in the process. Intentionally building in diversity allows teams the freedom to develop their own ways of working.

3. Upskill older employees

Older employees bring a lot of valuable and transferable social and organisational skills. However, to be ready for the needs of today’s workforce and to feel confident in themselves, they may need some training. A popular and creative way to upskill older employees is to induct them into an apprenticeship program. This helps them bring their value to an organisation again, retrain, and gain confidence. Moreover, it eases any apprehension younger team members may have in collaborating on projects.

Bridging a gap, generational or otherwise, needs a systemic approach to be sustainable. Only then can attitudes around generational bias and stereotypes change. SHAPE’s Corporate Culture Explorer assesses factors such as diversity and values that may affect employee productivity. It guides employees on how to align their values with company’s and tells employers how to leverage differences for a better working environment.

__1__Collins, S.M. & Casey, R.P., 2017. America’s aging workforce: Opportunities and challenges - senate. United States Special Committee on Ageing. Available at: [Accessed July 25, 2022].

__2__Anon, 2018. A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Communication Barriers in ... Economist Impact. Available at: [Accessed July 25, 2022].

__3__Becton, J.B., Walker, H.J. & Jones-Farmer, A., 2014. Generational differences in workplace behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(3), pp.175–189.

Corporate Culture