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Intergenerational dynamics in the UK workplace: a balancing act

Posted: 13/02/2024

There is no doubt that the UK workplace is an evolving landscape. Organisations are currently witnessing a unique convergence of multiple generations, each bringing distinct perspectives, skills, and experiences to the professional table. It is estimated that there are five generations in the UK workforce at present – more than ever before. 

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), older workers represent a rising proportion of the UK workforce, with 32.6% of the workforce over 50, up from 21% in the early 1990s.

This melting pot of seasoned professionals and the younger workforce, of course, offers an abundance of opportunities for UK businesses, with an immense potential for knowledge exchange and skill enhancement. Older employees often bring a wealth of experience, industry insights and contacts, and a honed skill set that has been refined over the years, while younger employees may have additional technical or IT skills and will bring a wave of new ideas. 

Organisations that are successfully able to leverage this mix of skills and experience will be well-placed for future growth. 

The idealists’ vision

The idealists' vision of the intergenerational mix is that of a collaborative atmosphere where diverse perspectives converge, and where the blend of skills and experiences leads to more effective problem-solving, creative solutions, and enhanced decision-making processes and close interactions. 

The idea is that seasoned professionals will mentor the younger generation and pass on invaluable knowledge, and the younger workforce will infuse energy, technological adeptness, and fresh ideas into the workplace. With the awareness and strengths that each generation brings, businesses become better prepared to meet their business needs now and in the future.

The realists’ vision

Despite the potential advantages, bridging the generation gap is not without its difficulties. Many of the problems clients face can, in part, be explained as challenges around intergenerational working. Senior executive clients in their 50s, and older, can struggle with bias and stereotypical assumptions, and perceptions about their abilities, dedication to their careers, and career development going forward.

The reality is that the competing, often conflicting, needs of an intergenerational workforce can lead to miscommunication and frustration. Sadly, by the time employment lawyers are approached for legal advice, matters may have escalated to something akin to Lord of the Flies, where groups are pitting themselves against one another in ‘a battle of rights’, and the winners are celebrated as the upholders of all things right and ethical. 

Getting back on track - benefiting from the developed skill set of an older demographic's broader experience and the energy, technological adeptness, and infusion of fresh ideas from a younger demographic requires a delicate balance against the backdrop of differing working methods, career aspirations, dialogue, and management styles. 

Navigating the challenges

Different working methods
Varied generational working methods can lead to friction within teams. The fact is that in an intergenerational workforce, there are often radically different working methods and needs. A lack of planning for this and absent (or ineffective) support and training for all, but specifically senior (read, for the purposes of this article, older) managers, has resulted in older employees becoming the subject of grievances. 

As a result, and because companies do not know how to deal with the often-conflicting needs of multiple generations, senior executives are leaving in droves rather than face career-destroying and serious allegations of discrimination, bullying, and harassment, very often without understanding what they are supposed to have done or not done.  

Dialogue and management styles
Effective dialogue is the key to overcoming these challenges, and at the heart of successful intergenerational collaboration. Organisations need to foster an inclusive environment where different communication and management styles are understood and appreciated.

It is essential to encourage open communication channels where individuals from different generations can express their ideas, concerns, and expectations. This fosters mutual understanding and paves the way for collaboration, breaking down stereotypes and dispelling misconceptions that may arise due to age-related differences.

Moreover, adapting management styles to accommodate the diverse needs of a multigenerational workforce is crucial. A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer viable in the modern workplace. Managers must recognise and appreciate each generation's unique strengths, tailoring leadership strategies accordingly. This flexibility ensures the workforce feels valued and understood, ultimately increasing job satisfaction and productivity.

Career aspirations and succession planning
A clash in career aspirations, with older employees possibly seeking stability and younger employees pursuing rapid career growth, may present challenges in aligning individual and organisational goals and can, if not managed effectively, create serious issues within teams and the organisation as a whole, with each group’s interests pitted against each other.

Balancing the career aspirations of individuals from different age groups poses a challenge for employers. Similarly, properly managing the retirement process and implementing effective succession plans are essential for ensuring a smooth transition between generations. 

Tailoring career development plans to meet the diverse needs of the workforce is crucial for maintaining employee satisfaction and retention. Younger employees may be keen to be promoted into the positions of longer-serving colleagues. The lack of a statutory retirement age, the emergence of hybrid working, and fears over future financial security, may mean that older workers are less likely to retire. Similarly, as we are living longer than ever before, and as living costs increase, the prospect of a long retirement may not be welcome for many. 

Legal implications

While intergenerational collaboration holds the promise of a diverse and enriched work environment, it also presents challenges that demand a nuanced understanding, especially in the realm of employment law.

Discrimination and equality
Age discrimination occurs when someone is unfairly disadvantaged for reasons relating to their age which cannot be objectively justified. It has been illegal in the UK since 2006, with the law now incorporated into the Equality Act 2010. People of all ages can be affected, including younger and older workers, and the growing number of older people in employment makes this group a key focus.

Older workers looking to enter or re-enter the workforce find it generally harder than other age-groups to find new employment, often as a result of discrimination or bias on the part of employers and recruiters.

Where there are differences, there can also be preconceptions, outdated stereotypes and discrimination. Organisations must be vigilant to avoid age-related discrimination and ensure that recruitment processes, workplace policies and practices are inclusive and promote equal opportunities for all age groups. Care should be taken to avoid making assumptions about workers because of their age – unconscious bias can be a real issue here.

Workplace policies and practices must be backed up and supported by practical training to ensure senior leaders are adequately skilled in dealing with a multi-generational workforce's often-competing needs and priorities. Comprehensive training programs focusing on generational differences, biases, and effective communication across generations will help overcome negative stereotypes that can easily toxify a company's culture.

Employers should invest in training, and particularly management training, to help ensure their senior managers are informed when addressing development and conducting performance management reviews to ensure older workers do not miss out on opportunities.

Access to an occupational health service will assist all employees, but perhaps more so for older ones. Poor health is one of the biggest reasons for economic inactivity among those in their 50s.

Flexible working
The diverse preferences and needs of different generations regarding working hours and conditions highlight the importance of flexible working arrangements. A lack of flexible working can also make it harder for older workers to remain in employment, particularly if they have caring responsibilities, or have a disability or long-term health condition. 

Senior managers should have open and honest conversations with older workers without making assumptions about their retirement intentions. They should consider requests for changes in working arrangement for those with ill-health or caring responsibilities. Employers should be aware of their legal obligations in accommodating or rejecting such requests.

Final thoughts

The current demographic of the UK workplace presents employers with an opportunity like never before to harness the skills, experience and talents of an intergenerational workforce. Doing so successfully will, however, require a strategic and legal-minded approach. 

Given our ageing population, the proportion of older workers in the workforce is expected to increase, especially if retirement age rises in the future. Therefore, it is crucial that employers establish the people management policies and practices needed to recruit, train, and retain an age diverse workforce, and harness the skills and experience they have effectively. According to CIPD research, only a fifth of employers currently have a strategy agreed at board level to manage a more age diverse workforce. 

Employers must proactively address the challenges that arise from different working methods, career aspirations, dialogue, communication, and management styles, and be mindful of their legal obligations, the legal issues that might arise, and the risks caused by preconceptions, stereotypical assumptions, and discriminatory practices. Achieving this will foster a harmonious work environment and mitigate the risk of legal complications in this dynamic and diverse professional landscape.

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP