It’s time to rethink what we know about our colleagues

Stereotypes. Oversimplified and rigid, but we all use them and there’s a good reason we fall back on them. They’re a handy short cut, helping us quickly make sense of the world around us and the people in it. Women, men, ethnic groups, faith groups, people of different cultures, class backgrounds or different countries are all subject to stereotyping. The first reference to a stereotype was way back in 1850, as a noun that meant “image perpetuated without change” and it was in 1922 that stereotype was first used in the modern psychological sense, by American journalist Walter Lippmann, in his work Public Opinion.

But people do change.

The workplace is no exception to stereotyping. Take a look at this article that appeared on LinkedIn recently. Look at how the Millennials (born 1982 to 1994) are described as lazy, and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1965) are described as less adaptable.

There’s nothing new in dismissing the younger generation as work-shy, irresponsible and unable to stand on its own two feet. All the talk of helicopter parenting, where parents wrap their kids in cotton wool and micromanage every aspect of their lives, hasn’t helped. Writing in The Huffington Post recently, Brook Price asked “Are You Hindering Your Child’s Development?” and warned of a family epidemic sweeping the nation, an epidemic he christens “failure to launch syndrome”. Price says kids have been so cosseted by their parents, that young adults are unable to achieve independence. Too many kids today are on “developmental vacation,” says Price.

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, understanding the different generations is too important to rely on stereotypes. Without a true understanding of the different generations, employers cannot know how to manage each in a way that drives performance, innovation and teamwork. They cannot know how to communicate, train and retain each generation. They cannot unlock the potential of each generation or tap into what each has to offer.

It’s time to rethink what we know about our colleagues.

Talent Works International spoke to 1,200 professionals, 300 from each of the four generations in the workplace today, in a quest to develop a real and reliable understanding of how they approach the world of work. Here are some of the most thought-provoking results to come out of our first of several studies to shine a light on the multi-generational workplace.

The younger generations are work-shy and lazy – not so

It’s simply not true that the younger generations are work-shy and lazy. Our research shows that of all the generations, it’s the youngest, Gen Z (born 1995 to 2009) that’s most relaxed about being on call 24/7. Whilst not bowled over by the idea, they’re less than half as likely to strongly disagree, and at least twice as likely to strongly agree, that employees should be contactable evenings and weekends.

If the youngest generation was work-shy, you might expect them to be heavily in favour of using personal phones in the workplace. Not so. Once again it’s Gen Z, this time joined by the oldest generation, the Baby Boomers, that’s least tolerant of personal phones in the workplace.

When we asked our respondents to describe their ideal culture and atmosphere at work, hardworking featured in the top three for all generations, including the younger ones.

The younger generations are socially awkward – not in the workplace

Fears that Gen Z has been rendered socially awkward as a result of a lack of social interaction brought on by always being online and communicating remotely via social media, do not stack up. Our research shows that the younger generations are no different from their older colleagues in preferring teamwork mixed with opportunities to work alone.

Gen Z isn’t wholly convinced about the use of headphones in the workplace, a behaviour one might well associate with the socially awkward. In fact, half are either actively against the idea or not sure. They attach just as much importance to getting along with colleagues as their older colleagues. The proportion for whom this isn’t important is negligible regardless of generation.

Of all the generations, the youngest are keenest on an open plan layout. The proportion of Gen Z and Gen Y for whom an open plan layout is their number one choice is 46% and 51% respectively.

It’s important that employers recognise the value of actively creating opportunities for all employees, whatever generation they belong to, to get to know each other.

Older generations resent a younger boss – not the case

The longer you work, the more likely it is that you’ll find yourself reporting to someone younger than you. As more and more people delay retirement in order to support their children or pay off their mortgage, and as the official retirement age goes up and up, the younger boss phenomenon is increasingly common. But contrary to expectations, Baby Boomers don’t have a problem with it.

In fact, 68% of Baby Boomers who responded to our survey said they’d feel “very comfortable” with a younger line manager. Only 3% were not at all comfortable. Ease of working with a younger line manager steadily increases with age. This implies that Baby Boomers recognise that having a younger boss can have substantial benefits, and that there are things they can learn from them.

Intriguingly, all generations, including the very oldest with decades of experience, lack conviction that they’re well equipped for the world of work. Only 32% of Baby Boomers strongly agree that they’re well equipped.

The rewards of an open mind

It’s easy to fall back on stereotypes, but with Baby Boomers willing to learn, and Gen Zs willing to collaborate and put in the hours – it’s those employers that are open to changing their way of thinking about different generations that will really be able to unlock their talent’s potential.