• Rethinking age at work

  • 12 Dec 2016
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Young people are just smarter” – the quote Mark Zuckerberg most regrets. But there are more than enough experts telling us millennials are ‘different’. Is our rush to divide the workforce by demographics, and cater for the smartphone generation, causing irreparable damage to us all?

At 21, Chris Achiampong is what many would describe as a typical ‘millennial’. He has high expectations of the workplace, and wants to progress into management. He has clear career goals (having left aside youthful dreams of playing for Arsenal after injury curtailed his footballing career), which have led him into a management apprenticeship with technology giant IBM.

“It’s quite a traditional business and there are certain perceptions about young managers,” he says. “If I didn’t feel like I had the stimulation or was adding value, then I would look elsewhere. Companies need to appreciate that it’s a competitive market and, when the guys at the top leave, we’ll be filling their shoes.”

Despite his self-assurance, Achiampong also confounds many of the clichés we hear about workers of his generation. He doesn’t expect to be promoted straight away, and values gradual learning and development over instant career gratification. He adds: “I’ve been offered triple my salary elsewhere, but I see my progression plan here and have a good manager who coaches and supports me.”

Absorb some of the headlines around millennials at work – roughly speaking, those between the ages of 18 and 34 – and you’d be forgiven for thinking we should just skip a generation and wait for robots to fill the skills gaps. US chef Martha Stewart recently described them as “lazy, self-indulgent and lacking in initiative to be successful”, while countless studies have concluded anything from a dire lack of management skills to being the most likely to swear in the office. They’re the most talked about generation, but also the most maligned – and if they’re not being put down, they’re being otherwise stereotyped as self(ie)-obsessed social media connectors who reject traditional career paths, don’t care for authority and have little interest in a job for life.

“One of the reasons so much is written about millennials is that, quite simply, they’re the biggest cohort of people at work,” says Professor Susan Murphy from the University of Edinburgh Business School. The ones doing the writing and stereotyping, she adds, are those who feel most threatened. “At one end, we have baby boomers clinging on to their jobs, and at the other this huge cohort of people coming into the workplace – and, not surprisingly, the people in the middle feel squeezed.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers has predicted that millennials will make up half of the global workforce by 2020, while in the UK they make up around a fifth of the population. Consultants and advisory firms have jumped on these statistics, marketing their services to employers so they can attract and engage this apparently entitled and demanding breed.

But when a generation is so huge, attempting to ascribe common traits and mindsets to it quickly becomes as pointless as claiming to know what all women (who already make up almost 40 per cent of the global workforce) want at work. And besides, are demographic traits (be it age, gender or nationality) really the most useful way to understand employees, or are they acting against the cause of diversity and genuine inclusion by obscuring the individuals behind the numbers?

“The idea that only millennials know about technology and so on is ridiculous, but people just naturally stereotype,” says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and author of The 100-Year Life, which argues against the idea of a traditional, linear career. Gratton has said that age discrimination is the most pervasive and dangerous form of discrimination in the workplace – and she’s clear that the way we approach the topic is distinctly unhelpful.

“Some companies have found that teams of different ages working together outperformed those that were more homogenous. We shouldn’t justify someone just because of their age – it’s the way they work, their strengths and weaknesses. Why is it only 18-year-olds who can take gap years?” she says.

The assumption that everyone born between two points in time will have the same characteristics is undoubtedly unhelpful. A report by social enterprise The Age of No Retirement recently found that 83 per cent of Brits feel they are not like others in their age group, while a growing number of women are taking time out of the workplace later in their careers to support secondary school-age children – a kind of mid-life maternity leave. Meanwhile, tech-savvy youngsters in certain sectors are just as likely to become managers as their more experienced colleagues.

Pervasive millennial myths are increasingly likely to be called out (see opposite). Peter Cappelli, professor of management at The Wharton School and one of the most respected HR academics going, has taken aim at those who claim millennials are different, suggesting such ideas are mainly the preserve of consultants who want to sell reports and services. “If you ask 22-year-olds what they want, the results are largely the same as 10 or 20 years ago,” says Cappelli. “And if you asked them again when they’re 50, guess what? They’d want the same as I do today.”

He points to the fact that the ‘baby boomers’ were once stereotyped as “lazy and uncommitted” compared to their parents. “Today, they’re telling the same people they’re overworked,” he says. Perhaps that’s why there is an increasing sense we should no longer define workers by demographic, but rather a ‘psychographic’ group with similar wants and needs. 

Facilities management company Servest, which has around 23,000 workers across a range of demographics, certainly agrees. The firm claims to bypass age stereotypes by getting to know employees’ working styles and preferences instead. It uses a profiling tool as part of the induction process that helps employees discover – among other traits – whether they have introvert or extrovert tendencies, and builds general self-awareness. “It shows how people are likely to go about their relationships and emphasises that everyone is different, regardless of age,” says HR director C-J Green.

Servest has also changed the way it approaches performance management. Green adds: “We encourage employees to tell us how they want to approach conversations about their development – do they prefer regular informal check-ins or something more structured?” Both approaches have contributed to a 30 per cent rise in internal promotions and an uptake in learning. “People have stopped looking through just one lens,” she says.

In fact, many of the supposedly negative stereotypes we attach to the millennial generation are things that could actually have a positive effect on the workplace. “Regular feedback instead of an annual appraisal is a good example,” says Jonathan Richards, founder of HR software company breatheHR. “Rather than implementing it because millennials have demanded it, do it because it’s right.”

Jennifer Liston-Smith, head of coaching and consultancy at My Family Care, suggests making policies around flexible hours or remote working ‘age agnostic’ rather than allowing managers to assume they’re just for those with families: “You need to show managers that flexible working is a way to deliver, not a favour that certain individuals have. Show examples of people making it work – but not just parents. Perhaps someone is taking time out to train for a triathlon. It’s wrong to assume certain generations need certain things.”

And as the way we work becomes less predictable – whether that’s down to businesses taking advantage of the growing ‘gig economy’, greater automation or economic wobbles – it’s likely we’ll have to factor in a more age-agnostic workforce anyway. “Generational lines will definitely become less delineated,” says Professor Vlatka Hlupic, author of The Management Shift. “We’ll see more fluidity and more of a focus on skills and attitude than whether you’ve been with the company for 30 years.”

At delivery company UPS, millennial-friendly work practices are positively embraced. A millennials working group designed a phone app for temporary drivers so that when the company scales up its workforce (for example, at Christmas) employees don’t need to be trained in the usual delivery-scanning hardware used by permanent drivers. UPS has also adapted how it delivers learning to account for the fact younger workers will have had a different educational experience – so drivers’ training is far more experience-led than classroom-based.

But this isn’t about favouring one demographic group over another – UPS has also created multi-generational action learning groups to come up with other ways it can drive efficiency, and reverse mentoring is well-established. “You can end up getting it wrong if you group everyone together,” says Jochen Mueller, vice president for HR in Europe. “Some people fit a millennial stereotype of looking for a new job every year, but others come to us wanting a company that matches their values and where they can make a career.”

And despite the fact there are so many young people in the workforce, some businesses could still face a skills deficit down the line – thanks to trends such as increased automation and, perhaps, the spectre of Brexit. “We have to be agile in keeping people upskilled because of the changes we’ll see in the workforce,” says Dr Petra Wilton, director of external affairs for the Chartered Management Institute. “People will need high-level skills such as managing complexity, problem-solving and understanding the implications of technology.”

Chris Jones, chief executive of skills development company City & Guilds, agrees that it pays to consider workforce planning along less demographic lines: “One thing that can help is to think about job families rather than job descriptions, because when we bring a blend of skills we work better.” Jones points to next year’s apprenticeship levy, where the government has promised that funding will be granted ‘regardless of the age of the learner’. “With the levy, we may see employers support apprenticeships for all ages, and those with a sensible approach will support flexibility for all ages too,” he says, though it’s worth noting that others are concerned this flexibility could be abused by businesses rebadging existing staff as apprentices.

Barclays has positioned itself as the poster child of inter-generational working, having launched its ‘Bolder Apprenticeships’ programme last year after discovering almost half of UK 50-somethings wanted to re-enter the workforce after time away. “When we looked at the sort of labour we wanted, there were parts of the business where it helps to have some life experience, such as dealing with complaints,” says Mike Thompson, director of apprenticeships. “Older apprentices give us lots of loyalty, so there’s less attrition, and we get to combine younger people’s digital skills with the life skills of older workers. I think to be a successful organisation you need a mix of skills and experience.”

Given that, by 2025, HR will likely be recruiting for roles that aren’t even a twinkle in business leaders’ eyes today, focusing on skills and attitude rather than preconceived ideas about different generations can only be a good thing. Steve Hill, external engagement director at the Open University, draws a stark conclusion: “We know job creation will outpace the number of young people in the labour market, and that will probably happen in the next 10 years,” he predicts. “Skills shortages plaguing businesses today are only going to intensify. You have to engage and re-engage employees of all ages to ensure their skills are up to date. We need to ensure the workforce is adaptable to this changing environment.”

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  • Thought provoking article, and as a "baby boomer" considering what my next move should be, a timely reminder to continue investing in personal development!

  • No it is not helpful to stereotype a group or generation. Its not us though that do it; it's the media who latch on to simple images and ideas to ensure ease of communication. 'Dandies', ''bluestockings' 'mods' 'rockers', 'hippies' 'skinheads', 'boot boys' 'emos', 'nerds'. etc Its been going on for years. As for the benefits of being tech savvy, anyone of any age who can't do basic work on a pc by now should probably not be at work in an office. 'Tech-savvy' youth are only 'tech-savvy' at things they want to be 'tech-savvy' at. Ask them to open a can of beans and most would be stumped unless there was a ring pull. Changing a lightbulb is too much to ask. Ah, how's that for sweeping generalisations? That's just me, a grumpy old post-modern ex baby-booming, ex-hipster, ex-rocker, pre-pensioner, shed-dweller! Merry Christmas! :)