Multi-Generational Workforce. An Organizational Culture Essay Example

By 2020, workers born before 1965 will account for 25% of the U.S. civilian workforce, up from 13% in 2000 (Christian-Carter, 2002). In a world of increasing life expectancy and decreasing birth rates, employee longevity is rising (Hillier & Barrow, 2015). Though preferences exist among employees of all generations, to work and interact with others of similar ages, this proves impractical being that five generations are present in today’s workforce (Iden, 2016). The workplace is multicultural in all aspects: ethnicity, gender, education, and age (Schein & Schein, 2016). Though consensus related to definitive dating for arbitrary generational designations does not exist, the following, outlined by Raymond Noe (2017), is beneficial:

Traditionalist: born before 1946 (aka: The Silent Generation)

Baby Boomers: born between 1946 and 1964 (aka: The Me Generation)

Generation X: born between 1965 and 1980 (aka: Baby Busters)

Generation Y: born between 1981 and 1995 (aka: Millennials)

Generation Z: born after 1996 (aka: iGen / Gen 2020er / Centennials)

The effects of multi-generational workers in today’s organizational culture are unique and plagued with misconceptions and biases. In light of five generations employed in today’s workforce, the primary division occurs between “younger” and “older” workers; though the break point is subjective and inconsistent, the early to mid 1970’s appear most common (Kremer & Thomson, 1998). 

Assumptions of existential crises and angst can be used to help understand multi-generational cultural differences. As social status diminishes, it can be assumed that older workers fear being replaced by younger workers who are less expensive and more socially flexible. The paradox of older workers in relation to gainful employment, is that businesses seek older worker expertise and experiences, yet hold biases and discriminate against them, stereotyping older workers as demanding more pay than their younger counterparts, health problems, and lack of longevity (Rich-Kern 2014). Furthermore, many companies force retirement on senior employees through mandatory retirement clauses (Noe, 2017). 

Younger workers, eager for opportunities, may perceive older workers as preventing them from achieving advancement and employment sustainability. Uncertainty and anxiety among all generations prevails as insecurity of marketability and job security are compounded by external environmental and economic factors. Workers of all generations recognize that their economic security may be in jeopardy. This insecurity amounts to a perceived lack of control. In essence, regardless of age, people cling to that which they understand and possess some semblance of control over. In a survey of literature and history spanning centuries and continents, it appears that each generation uses other age groups to direct and describe their fears and frustrations. Nevertheless, people of all generations attach themselves to sets of macro, organizational, micro, and subcultural norms in order to establish purpose, parameters, and identity (Schein & Schein, 2016).

Though both groups can become myopic in perspective, bridging the gap between generational cohorts can be cultivated through creating an organizational culture of inclusion, improving communications, addressing stereotypes and biases, and exploring multi-generational cultural expectations (Gausepohl, 2016). Generational tensions within an organizational culture impact overall opportunity, productivity, and profitability. To identify those generational tensions within an organizational culture, Kurt Lewin’s change process of Freeze – Rebalance – Unfreeze may be beneficial (Palmer, Dunford, & Akin, 2009). During the freeze phase, it is advisable to evaluate specific disagreements, concerns, frustrations, and fears. Another beneficial tool to overcome age related organizational cultural difficulties, and establish transformational growth, would be a modified Gap Analysis (Palmer, Dunford, & Akin, 2009, p. 132):

1. Where are we now? [Convert to: Who are we now?]

2. Where do we want to get to? [Convert to: Who do we want to become?]

3. How can we get there?

It is imperative to identify contradicting values within a multigenerational work culture. Realizing that each generation brings their collective histories, arts, traumas, and passions, it is prudent to be aware of, and attempt to create company rituals and shared behavior patterns that focus on mutually shared values and assumptions (Appannah & Biggs, 2015). Some of those differences between generational cohorts include economic events, wars, technological developments, and familial structures. For example, Baby Boomers value the self-made man, rugged individualism, and material successes. Generation Xers value flexible work arrangements, greater promotional opportunities, and family time. While the Millennials value personal freedom, emphasis on social activities, and greater workplace leeway (Iden, 2016). Such subcultural values directly impact the workplace through differing expectations, perceptions, and habits. Baby Boomers often like long work hours, rigid hierarchical structures, and formalities in communication, whereas Millennials prefer shorter workdays, flexibility in organizational structure, and informal patterns of communication (Iden, 2016). 

Assessing issues through a philosophical structural functionalism perspective allows for a unique understanding of varying cultural differences related to function and purpose. Every aspect of society, including generational, gender, and ethnic differences, serves a purpose, and ultimately will converge into a stable environment. In using a mathematical analogy, all cultural dichotomies and variables will encounter a convergence toward the mean. Though each age grouping differs, each is vitally dependent on the survival of the whole. Just as each organ of the human body is critical for survival, so too are the varying generations in the workforce (Spencer, 2019).

From an organizational or macro cultural perspective, functionalism substantiates that generational inequality serves to motivate all members to become a more productive and inter-reliant member of the collective consciousness, vital for stability and sustainability (Durkheim, 2011). From that functionalist context, the impact that stereotypes and biases have on multigenerational workers will eventually subside as groups converge in workplace values, behaviors, norms, and attitudes. That confluence is akin to Hegel’s (1977) and Fichte’s (1982) synthesis theories, where the original position (concrete/thesis) will be challenged by an equally opposite position (abstract/antithesis), then will ultimately converge into a mutually acceptable position (absolute/synthesis). Intergenerational differences will eventually amalgamate into a cultural paradigm satisfactory to all members. 

Regardless of theoretical paradigms and hypotheses, in today’s workforce, a culture of exclusivity occurs. Whether assumptions fall under the guise of misperceptions, stereotypes, or discrimination, the fact remains that older workers are singled out for unfair or biased representation (Appannah & Biggs, 2015). Organizational culture, fostered by unfounded societal norms, segregates subgroups and creates behaviors conducive to perpetuating negative characteristics against older workers. Unfortunately, a culture of exclusion, rather than inclusion, prevails in which older workers are either overlooked for promotions or omitted from the recruitment process (Poulston & Jenkins, 2013). For example, a common assumption frequently held by management and information technology (IT) personnel is that older workers are resistant to change (especially where newer technologies are involved), and are less motivated to stay current with new technologies (Dennis & Thomas, 2007). Likewise, other cultural assumptions denote older personnel as either unmotivated, have difficulty learning, or are technologically unable to advance (Appannah & Biggs, 2015). 

The differences in styles of communication between younger and older employees encompass many behavioral, normative, and attitudinal differences. Generations Y and Z people prefer social media and other digital technologies for communication, whereas Baby Boomers and many Generation Xers opt for communicating face-to-face or via phone calls and emails. Furthermore, the communication style of the younger generations is more informal and relies heavily on the use of abbreviations, lack of titles, and formal courtesies, as compared to those of older employees. If not handled correctly, these communicative differences can drastically impact organizational cohesion. Managers must carefully use multiple communication channels including a variety of meetings and written formats, as well as the use of digital media, when addressing a multigenerational employee base (Iden, 2016).

Leveraging Diversity Among Generations

In order to leverage cultural diversity among a multigenerational workforce to insure organizational successes, communication, cooperation, and education are critical. Evaluating organizational demographics, worker communication preferences, and the needs of each age-based cohort is fundamental. Utilizing Schein and Schein (2016) three aspects of culture – artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and underlying tacit assumptions – organizations can create an ethical and dynamic working environment. 

In order to identify inconsistencies within organizational cultural and cognitive paradigms, and isolate conflicting norms, values, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions, the use of both Kurt Lewin’s change process, as well as Gap Analysis (previously discussed), may be beneficial (Palmer, Dunford, & Akin, 2009). When inconsistencies in generational standards are realized, Nadler and Tushman’s (1980) congruence model can provide direction in determining consistency – or congruence – between varying generational cohorts. The Congruence Model would allow for overall evaluation of specific organizational culture issues related to topics such as ethics, acceptance, and generativity. Once problems are identified and a hypothesis formulated, the use of various n-step change models could be used to re-align cultural artifacts, espoused values and beliefs, and underlying tacit assumptions. Nevertheless, it is critical to identify existing frames of reference before framing those cognitive perspectives into functional beliefs that improve the working atmosphere (Hackman & Johnson, 2018).

Cultural diversity can be leveraged through the use of pertinent artifacts (Schein & Schein, 2016). The symbolism of a company (its myth, stories, rituals, and legends) needs to encompass all generations. This is especially relevant in relation to mindsets related to the development, implementation, and application of technology. For example, artifacts must dispel the common misnomer that older workers are not educatable on newer technologies (Crosley, 2018). While Generations Y and Z possesses a considerable acquaintance with the workings of technology, it is likewise imperative older workers receive technological training as well in order to overcome many workplace problems related to productivity, reliability, economy and flexibility (Wolf, Kleindienst, Ramsauer, Zierler, & Winter, 2018).

An ethos of mutual goal attainment, and reduction in intergenerational and interdisciplinary work related positioning needs to be addressed; job succession (obstruction or promotion of potential job opportunities) and work related consumption (allocation of limited resources) must be honest, and openly dealt with. This should encourage younger generations and management to be more receptive to sharing technologically related skills with older workers (North & Fiske, 2016).

Worker training and development should include awareness of existing stereotypes and misperceptions (Noe, 2017). In light of the structural functionalist perspective, it must be stressed that irrespective of age, all members of society can contribute a unique skill set and perspective to the workforce. Nevertheless, management should be encouraged to remember that, overall, older workers hold a higher degree of loyalty, motivation, and dependability in a crisis than do younger generations (Hursh, Lui, & Pransky, 2006). Likewise, older workers have been shown to have a greater commitment to quality, lower absenteeism, higher job retention, and greater reliability and job stability than do their younger counterparts (Poulston & Jenkins, 2013). One way to focus on similarities is to establish collaborative relationships in which teams of culturally different (age, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.) people work together to solve problems and complete tasks. Mixed-age work teams promote cross-generational mentoring and cultural harmony, in that colleagues learn from each other (Knight, 2014).

Due to increased globalization, demographic changes, and market demands, the focus on improving workforce culture is paramount. It may be prudent for companies to evaluate their employee (workforce) strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) in order to leverage multigenerational diversity. Specifically, in order to create a culture that best leverages the benefits of a multi-generational workforce, focus on worker similarities, build collaborative relationships, create cross generational mentoring relationships, maintain open and honest dialogue, and provide adequate training and development. Rather than focusing on differences between generations, reframing the similarities aids in reducing age based stereotypes, biases, and conflicts (Knight, 2014). 

Establishing a culture of critical thinking, in which self-evaluation is encouraged, will allow workers to more readily admit when something is not understood; it is crucial for workers to critically evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, and risk related to their ideas (Rittmaster, 2018). In order to leverage the collective intelligences (tacit and explicit) of all generations, and to create a multigenerational culture, reverse and reciprocal mentoring may also be beneficial; this may promote the concept of encouraging critical thinking in order to channel the experiences and perspectives of the younger generations entering the workforce as well (Noe, 2017). Nevertheless, In order to create and leverage a strong human capital base and a viable organizational culture, older workers should take a proactive role in ensuring the success of future generations, by sharing tacit knowledge, as well as advancing capabilities and skill sets within the organization.

People generally tend to interpret and frame information based on individual belief-value systems and world-views (Hoffmann, 2005). In essence, people interpret the world through their own unique and individual perspectives and experiences. From an epistemological view, the world is experienced from the subjective constructions of a person’s life circumstances (Wittgenstein, 1998). The framed perspectives depict the scope of responsive choices, and those choices are contingent on one’s self and world understanding (Herald, 2010). Ultimately, in order to effectively leverage the benefits of a multigenerational workforce, a culture must be established that allows all members to belong to the same in-group. Identifying similarities and maintaining consistent interactions creates group cohesiveness. 

Members not in the in-group are perceived differently, and stereotypes are embellished to quickly differentiate and justify a cognitive dissonance. Such biases built into current workplace constructs and cultures subtly, but effectively, influence perspectives and interpretations of others (Herald, 2010). Stereotyping is a mechanism to quickly assess others. Stereotyping is an evolutionary mechanism used to explain and interpret social interactions and group dynamics; it is intended to make other’s behaviors quickly and thoughtlessly understandable (Hermanson, 2017). It is a subjective coping mechanism separating people between in-group and out-group belongings that justifies treating and perceiving other’s differences (McGarty, Yzerbyt, & Spears, R. 2002). Cultural paradigms based on stereotypes, biases, and misnomers may obtain social validation through group consensus and shared experiences (Fischer & Ravizza, 2000). Regardless, the implicit danger in socially validated beliefs is that they can be forged into non-discussible assumptions.

Creating diverse teams provides opportunity for older workers to apply a tacit knowledge, gained from years of personal experience, while recognizing the skill sets and techniques of younger workers. People understand and appreciate each other more when they are able to work and build collaborative relationships (Knight, 2014); this creates in-group cohesion. Nevertheless, regardless of overarching cultural artifacts, espoused values, and tacit assumptions, the size of the organization is a determinant of the degree of in-group communication. The goal is to reduce cultural incongruence while attempting to maintain stability. Consistency of decisions, tasks, contexts, and situations are typically more congruent for in-group members than for those in out-groups (Hackman & Johnson, 2018). In-group consistency promotes favoritism, understanding, support, and preferential treatment. 

To leverage diversity, organizational cultures must promote and establish a flexible environment allowing for differences in work styles, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, for older generations, this may focus on employee wellness and work-life balance, whereas with younger generations, it may allow for flexible work environments, adjusting of work hours, and freedom to work remotely (Iden, 2016).

To create an enduring organizational culture, an additional focus should be placed on diversity training that includes topics related to ageism, human growth and development, and mental and physical changes related to the aging process (Lee, Czaja, & Sharit, 2009). Likewise, it may be helpful to matter-of-factly discuss age as a component in diversity training, teaming older workers with younger workers, as well as engaging in intergenerational training, communications, and team-building exercises (Dennis & Thomas, 2007).


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