March 2008 | By Cristina Simon, Professor of HR Management at IE Business School.
Much has been said about cultural, religious or sexual diversity, but there has been little talk of how to balance different generations that have different ways of seeing the world and business.
The enterprise world is starting to take notice of new aspects that form part of employees´ personalities and that will most probably affect their effective management. Although the recognition of the differences among genders, races or cultures has been consolidated in many companies, one of the things that greatly determine the way we see the world in this sense is the experiences we have had and share with the people from our own age group.
Besides our private and personal experiences, we all remember milestones that have marked the different stages of our life and that often serve as common references among our contemporaries. These experiences are shared by a large social group within a certain age range and we refer to this group as a generation. The important part of determining a generation group is not so much the fact of belonging to a certain age group (there may be considerable variations), but rather the cohesion of the group as a result of experiences, values and a shared way of life.
Indeed, this type of difference between people caused by ´different ways of seeing life´ as the result of the moments lived by each demographic segment has hitherto not been easy to identify, but it exists and gives rise to significant differences in every area of our daily life, including our working environment
At the present time, there are four large generational areas in organisations. The oldest collective (over 60s) is called the ´traditional generation´ and reflects the values of conservativism, austerity and discipline that characterised socially difficult times in the 20th century (wars and post-war periods, dictatorships). The group that is currently aged between 45 and 60 years is called the ´baby boom generation´, since it responds to a peak in the birth rate in the USA and Europe after a certain recovery from previous historical events. Their youth was marked by a radical opposition to traditional values and they pioneered social revolutions as important as the birth control pill, divorce and the incorporation of women into the working world.
The next generation is referred to as the ´X generation´, since they appear to be marked by scepticism and confusion in a world which, after a period of enthusiasm and social reform, is entering a phase of social, economic and labour uncertainty. The ´X´ professionals, brought up in homes where both parents work, react to this fact and became staunch advocators of the life-style balance. Finally, we have the youngest members, who, logically, are referred to as the ´Y generation´. If there is one factor that marks this group, it is undoubtedly the fact that they grew up with technology and the Internet, which conditions their professional preferences and social dynamics.
How does this mosaic of perceptions and values fit in the working world? First of all, we have to consider the fact that senior company management, which defines corporate culture, undergo generational changes and the first members of the baby boom generation are currently leaving as the members of the X generation take over posts at management levels. Undoubtedly, this fact has to do with the mass implementation of flexibility and reconciliation policies that have become so fashionable in recent times.
Meanwhile, relations between professionals from the various generation groups can lead to friction as a result of clashes between values, which are often so different that disagreements are inevitable. Complaints from older employees are common because their younger counterparts are not loyal to the company and give priority to their personal life; and the comments made by the younger members of the company about how conservative and illiterate their bosses are in terms of virtual work and the world of technology are no less common.
The relatively few studies on the matter recommend making professionals aware of these differences by means of communication and training actions, generating an environment of tolerance of what is merely the natural evolution of groups of people that have had very different experiences in life and, although they share the same society and nationality, may see the world in different ways. Maturity brings with it serenity and experience, whereas youth is a driving force for renewal and innovation. The balance between these factors can be an essential source of organisational learning.
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