Bridging the generation gap

Upskilling Workers

By Meera Vijayan

Employers are favouring the demands of generation Y workers over older workers despite an increasingly ageing workforce.

The troubling data has emerged from the recent Australian Institute of Management national salary survey 2010 for small and large companies.

Matt Drinan, research and HR manager at AIM, says that company policies commonly changed to accommodate younger workers are the availability of flexible working hours, followed by performance, training and career development plans.

"There is a perception that because older workers are approaching the end of their careers, their career development needs are somehow less important," he says.

Drinan notes that this perception is a mistake as many older workers and their organisations can benefit from training to update their skills.

According to the AIM survey, the average age of the workforce increased in 45.9 per cent of small companies and 44.8 per cent of large companies.

This marks an increase up from 37.8 per cent and 39.9 per cent respectively in the previous year.

Among the key findings of the national survey include the fact only 5.6 per cent of small companies and 6.8 per cent of large companies amended their company policies in accordance with demands made by older workers during the past two to three years.

This is a stark contrast to the statistics that reveal 24.3 per cent of small companies and 9.1 per cent of large companies willingly revised company policies to accommodate gen-Y workers.

The survey is based on responses of 750 companies, both large and small, across the country.

Drinan says employers need to be fair to workers of different generations to ensure company policies do not favour one over the other.

He says by ensuring that workers in all life stages are catered for equally based on their differing needs and demands, organisations can prevent skill gaps from emerging.

"Staff retention is important coming at a time of keen competition in the job market and you don’t want to lose your skills to your competitors,’" he says.

"Keeping and engaging the people you have in your organisation is the most sensible thing to do by making sure your policies support your workers."

Drinan also points out that older people are a very diverse group and therefore flexible working arrangements are crucial to enable them to balance caring responsibilities, manage health conditions or pursue other activities outside of work.

Drinan emphasises that while gen-Y’s workplace needs are important, they should not take precedence over the needs of their older counterparts.

Judy Higgins, a consultant with specialist job website OlderWorkers, which assists workers over 45 to find employment, concedes it is tough for organisations to juggle the needs of such a diverse group of workers.

She believes that, for managers and supervisors, learning to communicate effectively with different generations can eliminate a world of confrontation in the workplace.

"We’ve got four generations in the workforce at the moment and that’s never, ever been the case before," she says, as workers are staying in the workforce longer.

Higgins points out that for organisations to cope with the challenges of melding baby boomers, generation X and gen-Y, and even possibly some of the pre-war generation, the veterans, the style of communication between older workers and younger generations at work is critical.

"Research indicates that people communicate based on their generational background and each generation has its distinct behaviours, attitudes and expectations," she says.

She also points out that their habits and motivations also are different.

Higgins notes that, for instance, the veterans may have a leadership style that is very directive and formal while gen- Y may prefer a more interactive style.

She says if leaders do not take the different attitudes, behaviours and expectations into consideration, they are setting themselves up to fail.

Higgins believes that the challenge of managing the various generations in the workplace ultimately pays off as companies benefit from the diversity of traits and talent.

"It is not going to be easy, but good organisations are putting some time into it to see how to make the differences work," she says.

Australian Human Resource Institute national president Peter Wilson says it is possible to cater to the needs of the different generations with a little thought and effort.

He says that baby boomers who have worked full time for the past 30 to 35 years may still be keen on staying on in the workforce, even if they are not inclined to work at the same pace and pressure. He also notes that evidence shows longevity and good health are highly correlated to mental and physical wellbeing, which in turn relates to being kept engaged.

Wilson says this is where flexible work schedules are best implemented.

He points to a 2009 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Millennials @ Work, that found that 98 per cent of generation Y workers wanted access to strong mentors.

"Smarter employers are meeting the demands of both these generations by restructuring and engaging older workers in flexible work schemes, including taking them back on as mentors to the younger generations," he says.

Wilson says demand for skilled labour is going to be much stronger in years to come and that it makes sense to engage older workers in mentoring and training work. He says that now workers are retiring in their 50s, often with another 20-odd years ahead of them, and keeping them engaged offers enormous potential.

Wilson also says research shows that losing or retrenching a worker means it will take another 18 months to recruit, train and bring the new hire up to a certain level of productivity.

"If you’re facing really strong growth and you’re letting some of your best people retire and go completely, then you’ll have a real problem maintaining profitability and growth," he says.

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