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Understanding Generational Differences In The Workplace

August 14 2010 - Organizations that only consider age when addressing generational divisions in the workforce risk losing knowledge to retirements and higher staff turnover according to research from the University of Illinois published in the Academy of Management Review.

Lead author Aparna Joshi, a professor of labor and employment relations explained:

"The challenges are complex, but the solutions being offered are too simplistic. Our aim should be to match the complexity of the problem with more nuanced solutions. The payoffs could be huge in terms of benefits, such as mining the knowledge base of older workers."

The study found that businesses tend to rely on stereotypes associated with Baby Boomers or Generation X'ers, ignoring other relevant factors.

Aparna Joshi commented:

"Our message is the problem isn't that simple and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Just as we don't want to take simplistic approaches to race and gender issues, we shouldn't automatically assume that a gray-haired man isn't on Facebook or good at technology. Assumptions based solely on age can lead to some very faulty conclusions and missteps."

Researchers analysed data from previous decades and identified three primary factors that could contribute to generational factions in the workplace preventing employees from interacting and sharing knowledge. Age is one such factor, but goes beyond broad labels. For example, individuals are further defined by their common experience of significant external events (such as World War II, the assassination of President Kennedy or the 9-11 terrorist attacks). This can give rise to subgroups within generations.

Other factions are multi-generational. They can be based on when employees started work with a firm (comparable to lifelong bonds formed by soldiers during deployment) or their position in the workforce (such as a top management team facing replacement by a new generation of leaders or supervisors working with subordinates who could ultimately take over their jobs).

Aparna Joshi said:

"What we are headed toward is creating a better understanding of the complexities of generations in the workplace and, we hope, more realistic solutions. Businesses need to make targeted diagnosis like a doctor diagnoses an illness, rather than just prescribing penicillin for every ailment."

Researchers suggest that reducing divisions between workers can enhance productivity and efficiency. Institutional knowledge is passed on, rather than being lost through retirement; new recruits are more engaged, reducing costly turnover.

Aparna Joshi concluded:

"It's human nature that workers interact with their cohorts, seeking out their own. Figuring out ways to bring them together will allow companies to tap into all of those knowledge silos and reach full potential."

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