The nature of work in Australia is undergoing massive change, thanks to a changing of the generational guard with equivalent shifts in worker expectations and technology – and these have a number of important implications for HR, writes Alex Hayes
It is no exaggeration to say we have just entered a historic new era in business, with five distinct generations now in the workforce. But this historic moment also brings with it uncharted challenges for most companies, who now need to get to grips with how they can meld the needs of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z, and maintain a consistent work culture.
Add to this rapid changes in technology which will alter the very fundamentals of many jobs, and you have a future that requires a lot of planning for most businesses. What do these new workers bring into the workforce, and how will they change the way companies need to set themselves up?
Claire Madden has spent her career studying generational theory, analysing the factors that influenced the character traits of different generations, and has recently written a book looking at the traits and aspirations of Gen Z. Madden said there are a number of reasons we are seeing this change, from people needing to work longer as the population ages and the retirement age gets pushed up, work becoming more intellectual and less physical in nature, and the timeframe we use to define generations altering.
She explained the traditional measure of 30-years for a generational cohort has been disrupted by the increasing rate of change in technology, and subsequently society. “The change in our world is so accelerated that the old measures don’t cover it now,” said Madden.
“In Australia, we are starting to talk about 15-year cohorts. There are life stereotypes that help us understand what the social influences were, the significant world events, the technology changes and so forth that impacted that age group or generation, how they communicate, their worldview and perspective.
“We grow up with these generational influences but they are unconscious. If you want to manage your multigenerational workforce your starting point is to realise this. We know what is familiar to us, but it’s much harder to imagine how someone else sees the world.”
“The change in our world is so accelerated that the old measures don’t cover it now”
While researching her book Madden interviewed more than 100 people of different ages, giving her a definitive insight into what has helped to shape different generations. She pointed to Millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) as citing the internet and then 9-11 as the fundamental things that changed their worldviews, whilst Gen Zs (people born after 2000) consistently cited social media and technology as their defining forces.
Madden added: “We live in a different world. The younger generations have the keys for us and we need each other. We need the wisdom and experience and skills of the generation before and we need the perspective, agility, entrepreneurialism and insights of the emerging generations if we are going to thrive.”
How much should you adapt to different desires?
For Madden, every business needs to understand and adapt to these shifts in the landscape, mainly because the emerging generations are their emerging and future customers as much as anything else.
“Millennials and Gen Z have different priorities when it comes to working and we won’t engage them if we just apply the same rules we have in the past,” she explained. “Those rules might have worked to engage Gen X but they won’t work on Gen Z and then we’ll lose the best talent of these new generations. And we need them. They carry a currency and a relevancy about where society is heading.
“They have an understanding of consumers and of how to engage with social media and how to be innovative and fast moving, that we need in our workplaces. If we don’t respond by creating a workplace culture that will attract and engage top talent in Gen Z we are at risk of really missing the boat here.”
However, business transformation expert Tom Goodwin, who is head of innovation for advertising agency Zenith in New York, warned we are in danger of treating these younger generations as “some sort of new species”.
“Millennials and Gen Z have different priorities when it comes to work and we won’t engage them if we just apply the same rules we have in the past”
He explained: “When they say things like, ‘Millennials like live music and they have more friends and they’re a bit more radical and they don’t care about their future’, that’s not something about someone born in 1990, that’s just what it’s like to be an 18-year-old.
“And then the other half of all the things that we say about Millennials are actually just very modern behaviour. So when we say things like, ‘they want to watch TV on demand on their own schedule, they’ve got smartphones or they’re brand promiscuous’, actually, quite a lot of those things are very generic 2018 things, that my 72-year-old dad does as well.”
Goodwin said it is “wrong” for a company to “abandon everything and go after the young people and work around them”, and urged them instead to find a “middle ground” to make them happier in the workplace. “I don’t think enough people really think about that, I think there are things that companies can do that are actually quite easy, that they’re not doing,” he explained.
“Actually it’s probably more important as a younger person in the business to not fly business class with United, but to be given a chance to get that money rather than a business class ticket. It’s probably more important when you’re young to get a really nice Apple Mac rather than some crappy PC that someone passed down.
“It’s probably more important to have these than it is to have another $2,000 in your paycheck. So I think it would be a fascinating exercise to map through a negotiation strategy; what are things that companies can do quite easily, which are actually really important to younger people?”
The forgotten middle child
While many books, articles and think-pieces have been penned about Millennials in the last five years, there is a growing sense that Gen X (people born from around 1964 to 1980) have become something of an ignored “middle child”.
Madden thought that in part that is because they are something of a chameleon generation, growing up with the traditional working values of their Baby Boomer parents and embracing stability and longevity in their careers, but having to adapt to new technologies at the same time.
“What are things that companies can do quite easily, which are actually really important to younger people?”
“You can think of Gen X as something of a middle child, sitting between the two larger and highly distinctive generations that experienced dramatic social and cultural change in their formative years, the Boomers and the Millennials,” explained Madden.
“Gen X is a bridging generation and they are able to adapt to large-scale change but they grew up in the pre-internet world. In their work years, though, they’ve been immersed in this technology age. They understand the Baby Boomers’ way of working and have to some degree taken on a similar work ethic, seeing careers as something you need to invest in long-term and work hard to work your way up.
“On the other side, they’ve got Millennials who have come in and said, ‘Oh you don’t need to work like that, you can move around and have a far more flexible life.’” For Madden this adaptability and stability make Gen X “an untapped resource for organisations”, able to relate to the traits of the generations on either side of them and therefore manage them effectively.
The rise of the robots
But while these cultural workplace changes are happening there is a fundamental shift occurring in technology which is threatening to disrupt the way many industries are structured and their needs for workers.
Zenith’s Goodwin points to the developments in artificial intelligence as one of the main things that will change the nature if the workforce, and the skills businesses will need from their employees. He said: “It’s not like one day someone opens a bag of artificial intelligence and then the company’s much smarter, but there are lots and lots of technologies within this broad theme that are probably going to get good enough for companies to start embracing them. And when they really start embracing them I think it does lead to quite significant efficiencies and it leads to sort of people having a different role in business.”
Goodwin likened this change to that experienced during the industrial revolution when pulleys and levers replaced a lot of very manual processes. Now though, it is university educated people like lawyers, accountants, fund managers and other process-driven white-collar workers who are likely to be replaced.
Instead of knowledge people will be hired on the skills they can bring to a business, said Goodwin, with things like curiosity, adaptability and creativity becoming more highly valued.
Empathy is another trait he thinks will be incredibly necessary, explaining “the ability to build relationships with people and to understand each other, do deals with each other and relate to each other’s business, is going be vital”.
“The best teams are built on the strengths of all the generations in the workplace. Everyone holds a piece of the puzzle that creates the whole picture”
Madden said this technological shift makes it “a critical time for businesses to do something about this”. “The convergence of the technology change is redefining the business landscape, so business models are shifting and we’re seeing some significant disruption affect how we can engage with customers, how we can create new products, the impact of global connectivity and how we can work with people from all around the world,” she said.
“Products can be created and distributed more easily, more widely and more rapidly than ever before so we have this global marketplace; even with workers we are outsourcing and utilising those platforms that allow freelancers from around the world to be working on your team. It’s global, it’s disruptive with technology, we’ve seen the new models like Uber and Airbnb and we’ve also got these new generations who do see the world in a different way.”
Don’t ignore the change
Against this backdrop then lies a challenge at all levels of business, from CEOs setting company strategy to HR departments trying to create coherent workplace cultures and structures to fit a more flexible and transient workforce. But as Madden said “we live in a different world”, one many companies have still not fully grasped.
The multigenerational workplace is not a fleeting phenomenon, but something that is here to stay.
“We will have five generations in the workplace from now on; as the traditionalists retire we will have Gen Alpha coming into the workforce,” explained Madden. “They’ve been born into a completely different world. They have really different priorities and really different expectations of work.”
The solution to future proofing your business, for Madden, is to meld the best parts of all of these generations to harness the knowledge, experience and entrepreneurial spirit they bring to the table. “The best teams are built on the strengths of all the generations in the workplace. Everyone holds a piece of the puzzle that creates the whole picture,” she concluded.
“This is the landscape; this is the demographic of our society and if we don’t have this reflected in our business if we aren’t representative, then how can we be functional and relevant in this landscape? It does take a lot of energy to turn your attention from running the day-to-day matters of your business and consider making this kind of change and investment. But it can’t be ignored; businesses who can’t change can’t thrive.”
To find out more about generational changes in the workplace and implications for HR, attend the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s NextGen in Business event series in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Speakers include: Netflix’s culture architect Patty McCord; Atlassian work futurist Dom Price; Business transformation expert Tom Goodwin; Billion-dollar startup founder Cyan Ta’eed; and Ben Gould of Workplace by Facebook. Image source: iStock