Managing generational differences in the workplace

By Frederick Mordi

It was Pierre Diallo’s first visit to the company’s head office in Lagos. He had flown into Lagos, along with his country manager, to attend a meeting. Pierre’s colleagues had requested that he took a ‘selfie’ with the Group CEO to prove that he actually visited the firm’s head office.

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And so after the meeting, Pierre sneaked in to see the big boss of the multinational company. He introduced himself to the female Secretary, who gave him a disapproving look. She asked if he was on appointment. Before Pierre could respond, the CEO breezed into the office. Pierre instantly recognised him from the company’s e-newsletters and podcasts. He quickly moved before the Secretary could stop him.

“Hi, I am Pierre Diallo from the Abidjan office. Can I take a selfie with you?”

This humorous narrative aptly mirrors the diversity that exists in today’s workplace. This diversity, which has different dimensions such as culture, language and age, can all influence the communication process in an organisation. These different dimensions of diversity often cause tension in organisations, particularly multinationals. Here, you have Pierre, who is about 23 years old and from a Francophone country, which has a different language and culture; interacting for the first time, with a female Nigerian Secretary, who is possibly in her late forties.

People of Pierre’s generation have an approach to work and life that is distinctly different from those of the older generation. They tend to be more relaxed, lackadaisical, and impulsive. You often find them listening to music from an earpiece plugged to their official laptops. That is the reason the matronly Secretary must have frowned at Pierre’s imprudence. People of her generation believe employees like Pierre lack work ethics. On the other hand, Pierre’s generation cannot seem to understand why they cannot be left alone to work in the way that best suits them. This often creates generational tension in the office.

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Managing generational differences in the workplace can prove to be a challenge for multinational companies, which can have up to five generations of employees. For this reason, multinationals are paying closer attention to workplace diversity. Although there seems to be no consensus on when some generations start and stop, the following five groups are generally identified:

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The Traditional School (1925 to 1945): This is the traditional ‘radio’ generation. Most members of this generation are retired pensioners, while a few are still working.

Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964): This generation, which currently sits atop the board and management of companies, derived its tag from the population explosion that followed the end of the Second World War in 1945. The older ones have retired, while those in the fifties and sixties bracket, are still in active service.

Generation X (1965 to 1980): This is the generation that is getting set to take over from the Baby Boomers. This generation values balance and diversity and have global mindset.

Generation Y (1981 to 1995). Famously referred to as ‘millennials,’ this generation, to which Pierre belongs, is reputed for its technological know-how. People like Pierre are much at home with their mobile phones which they use to surf the net and access social networking sites, even while at work. They are changing the face of business communication. But the older generations view them as a bunch of unserious people. That is why they do not often seem to get along with Generation X.

Generation Z (after 1996): Also called Generation I (for Internet) or the Net Generation, they are the generation born after the advent of the World Wide Web. They will be more tech savvy than the Generation Y because they are exposed to the net early in life.

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In the next decade or so, Baby Boomer bosses will be preparing for retirement, paving the way for Generation X to succeed them. It certainly would be interesting to know how the workplace will look like when it eventually gets to the turn of Generation Y and Generation Z to head multinational corporations across the world.

That future is not too far away as Google, which was founded on September 4, 1998, has already started out implementing what many would describe as a ‘weird’ world culture. The ‘Googleplex’ reportedly offers employees free Wi-Fi-enabled buses to and from work, free meals, gym, 18 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and office crèche, and good pay package. Pierre would easily fit into this kind of company.

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