A multigenerational workforce brings its own challenges and rewards

Recognising differences is the key to good intergenerational staff relationships – a one-size-fits-all strategy won’t work

With employees now straddling baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z, many organisations are struggling to manage the challenges associated with multigenerational workforces.

Paul O’Donnell, managing director of recruitment firm HRM, says most organisations are failing to see the strategic importance of the issue and in some cases are designing human resources strategies around faulty assumptions.

“There’s this idea that the younger generation is work-shy, and you might get that espoused by senior management and not being challenged. It’s simply not true but if that becomes the basis of a strategy around engagement and retention, then that becomes a real problem,” says O’Donnell.

The lack of understanding between the generations is borne out by research HRM conducted among Irish workers. Previously attacked by older cohorts for being work-shy, millennials now find themselves under fire from younger colleagues too for being the sort of “flakes” who are likely to post on social media about climate issues, for example, but who unwilling to take action.


“Okay boomer”, meanwhile, is a phrase designed to mock anyone older than a millennial for being conservative, out of touch or technologically inept, while members of Gen Z are accused by older colleagues of not yet having been able to find a problem for which there isn’t an app.

Older professionals, who spent their early career years doing so-called grunt work, appear to be resentful of younger ones who are not prepared to put in the hard yards on their way up the organisational ladder, O’Donnell notes, but again this comes from different perspectives about jobs.

“Gen Z see their careers as a collection of short stays,” he says. “The key to maintaining good intergenerational relationships is to recognise differences and to talk about them. Everyone should be treated equally and fairly – but a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy doesn’t work.”

Mary Connaughton, director of the professional HR body CIPD, agrees that recognising the differences between generations is vital. She says younger workers are influencing the expectations of their older colleagues, as younger people tend to more readily articulate their needs.

“Where those needs have been met it has had a knock-on effect on older workers who feel they also have needs that should be met too,” she says.

This has affected a range of issues, from remote and flexible working patterns to wellness issues and life events such as fertility and menopause.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on intergenerational work relationships too. Connaughton says some organisations have found that their induction programmes for new and younger staff have not been as effective because of remote working and that new recruits have not “knitted in” to the organisation as well as previously.

Niamh Moynihan, founder of training and coaching organisation Better Workday, agrees. She believes the post-Covid reduction in office working has meant younger staff missing out on mentoring opportunities, be they formal schemes or as informal as working alongside a more experienced colleague of whom they can ask questions.

One of the key things managements need to do is create spaces for training and mentoring between colleagues, including those of different generations, says Moynihan.

“There’s a need to recognise this as an issue and at least have a conversation about it but many organisations are not treating it as a priority,” she adds.

The problem is compounded by demanding workloads that keep employees busy in their own silos, lacking the capacity to share their knowledge and experience with colleagues.

Younger workers, Moynihan says, also need the challenge of being given responsibility. However, in some companies there is a culture of risk avoidance and managers are told “on your head be it” if they delegate to younger staff, which doesn’t encourage growth and development.

However, experience suggests that the benefits of a diversely aged staff working well together can be felt even beyond the workforce. A survey of 32,000 McDonald’s workers in the UK in 2016, for example, revealed a 10 per cent increase in happiness levels among those who worked in cross-generational teams.

Among the restaurant chain’s customers, 84 per cent indicated that they would like to see a mix of ages in the teams working there, with 60 per cent saying they expected better service as a result.