The Multi-Generational Workforce

There’s a growing trend, probably originating in some happy, progressive, Scandinavian country, to build retirement villages and early childhood centres next to each other. As well as physical proximity, the organisers of both centres work together to plan cooperative activities so, in a planned and managed way, the people at one end of a lifetime interact meaningfully with people from the other end. Results so far are positive and encouraging. The younglings benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders, whilst the retirees are re-energised in the presence of youth. This is probably that whole ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mindset people throw around that we all use to lean on back in our tribal times so the middle people in their peak productive years could go out and hunt, gather and pillage depending on their skillset and testosterone levels.

This synergy born of close physical proximity has a name. It’s called propinquity. Look it up in a dictionary. If you don’t have a dictionary, google where to buy one. (Hint – you could google propinquity directly). Drop it into dinner party conversation. Apparently, studies have been done on effective working relationships and lifelong personal friendships. The studies sought to identify what the drivers of such successful relationships were. It turned out that simply being next to each other at some crucial point in time was the single most influential factor. You’d be amazed at how many best buddy friendships were formed with the person in the chair next to you on the first day of primary school, simply because everyone was seated alphabetically and Craig’s surname also ended in W.

This principle of propinquity comes into play in the workplace, and its potential benefits escalate if managed wisely, when you have a multi-generational workforce. I was MCing an HR conference recently and saw an eye-opening presentation on diversity. There were the obvious cultural and racial declarations and statistics such as Auckland being the 2nd most racially diverse city in the OECD behind Toronto. Quite apart from that was information about age diversity. It’s becoming increasingly normal to have workplaces with five generations of people working there.

I guess if you got a school leaver at sixteen and someone in their 70s, you could probably divide that into five generations. I did chat with someone at that conference who spoke about handing a bunch of letters in pre-sealed and stamped envelopes to their fresh, teen employee and asked if she could post them on her way home. He reports that she just stared at him and asked what he meant. There are actually people in fulltime, adult, paid employment who don’t know what a letter is or how to post one. I had a conversation myself with some other people about analogue clocks and how you can throw the odd young person with a phrase like, “Quarter past”. I’m sure young people are having the same conversations in reverse when we completely misunderstand invitations to, “Netflix and chill”. (Google it if you need to – probably NSFW. Google NSFW if you need to…)

Can New Zealand workplaces generate benefits with multi-generational workforces in the same way that those Scandinavian retirement village / early childhood centre combos do? Just randomly letting it happen and hoping for the best will not garner those benefits, unless by accident. The reason the retirement village / early childhood centre combos work is due to planning and management. It’s deliberate, it’s monitored constantly, and interventions are done as and when required. Some things happen that weren’t anticipated but lessons are learned with structured debriefing processes. Some things are easily anticipated and they’re planned for in a flexible way. For example, the traditional notion of retirement as switching the work switch to ‘off’ and going from fully employed one day to gardening / fishing / recreational vehicle-ing the next day is becoming less clear cut. Smart employers have a range of options and are open to innovative suggestions from those impacted.

Talent may want to cut back a bit and have a transition period, maybe over months or even years, working less hours or days and maybe even cherry-picking projects, whilst still being on-call if their institutional memory suddenly is needed on an ad hoc basis. If they’re truly talented and productive, they’ve probably earned it and it’s probably worth it. But, just because someone is old doesn’t mean they’re wise and just because someone is young doesn’t mean they’re an energetic go-getter. A much more individualised approach to managing personal retirement options and transitions is the way of the future.

While all this is happening to those people at the retirement end of their working lives, bearing witness to it are those starting out or in the middle. How you treat those people isn’t just about those people. It sends a powerful message, positive or negative, to upcoming talent on just how disposable they might end up being themselves.

Not every workplace should have employees bringing in their preschoolers though. Some people really need to focus on their air traffic controlling duties.




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13 January 2018


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Once a month you'll get a single email digest of the article postings and updates from Terry Williams - keynote motivational conference or after-dinner speaker and leadership author. Sometimes funny, sometimes inspirational, often provocative. A unique New Zealand perspective from a thought leader generating and challenging ideas to help you learn to lead, motivate, influence, engage and move your team. Engage people; Improve results!