Three ideas to foster intergenerational harmony in the workplace

We’re all in this together.
We’re all in this together.
Image: Reuters/Ali Jarekji
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Choosy. Spoiled. Talented but lazy. Those are just a few of the terms we’ve heard managers and HR professionals use to describe millennials and Gen Z-ers, as they struggle to decode colleagues in their 20s and 30s.

Can we blame them? How can those of us running businesses today ever hope to create a loyal workforce when the new generations of job hoppers change jobs four times before they even turn 32? What can managers do with people who expect a pay raise and promotion every year, and want lots of time off to pursue a myriad of interests?

As colleagues, we each recognize aspects of ourselves in the larger debate. One of us (Paolo) has been a human resources executive with 30 years of experience gained in many different countries but at just four employers. The other (Peter) is a 32-year old-media professional whose average job tenure so far is well below three years, meaning he has changed jobs more often in 10 years than his colleague has in 30.

But when each of us set out to understand the other’s generation, we realized the distinctions between us and the generations we represent aren’t that profound below the surface. That’s important, because with five generations currently working alongside each other, focusing too closely on our differences threatens to become a major distraction from our common goals.

In fact, we have found that we essentially want the same things on the job: passion and love for what we do, learning every day, and helping others along the way, all with a deep sense of purpose. We drew this conclusion not just from comparing our own preferences, but also from interviews with dozens of members from each of our generations.

How can we achieve intergenerational harmony? Here are our three top insights:

1. Loving your job matters more than money

But we need to get better at interpreting the messages that young people are sending about what they “love” about their job.

When older managers see young people switching jobs so often, they may conclude there is a “war for talent” that can only be won by offering higher salaries. Looking at our own organization’s Global Shapers survey from 2017, we know that salary is indeed one the most important criteria for young people when considering job opportunities: Almost half of respondents globally indicated that financial compensation is top of mind.

But that doesn’t imply they’re mere mercenaries for hire. “Sense of purpose,” coupled with  “impact on society,” came in second in our survey, with 40% of millennials putting it among their top priorities. “Professional growth” and “work life balance” were also considered important to steering their professional choices, by respectively  40% and 30% of respondents.

Actually, the idea that money would be central to career decisions may reflect more the ideology of an older generation. One baby boomer CEO we interviewed told us he wanted to double his salary every four years when he was young. Others confirmed this perspective. They had considered financial compensation the ultimate validation, long before millennials were around.

It’s not far-fetched to think then, that it’s precisely because older generations apply this perspective to the incentives they use to entice a younger generation, the youngsters will follow suit. When we signal to a younger generation that money is the primary currency, should we be surprised if they actually register that lesson? It’s an argument we’ve read before: The Me Generation, which then produced the Me Me Me Generation, now realizes it’s dealing with a super-sized version of itself.

Yet money does not have to be the decisive factor for people to stay in their jobs. Younger generations often care more about non-monetary factors, like more flexible time off, a more balanced work-life schedule, or a more purposeful assignment. Even when people leave for the money, they arguably might have stayed if given a more purposeful and balanced job with their previous employer.

For the younger set, it is also important to remember that good relationships with colleagues and the chance to work with a manager you fully trust and respect are other perks that have real, if intangible, value. The older set, meanwhile, would do well to remember that employees who look to be going elsewhere for the money might really be leaving because of their boss. In our conversations with millennial and Gen-Z workers, we learned that many of them seek personal recognition as much as financial rewards.  At times a simple “thank you” can go a long way.

2. Learning matters more than promotions

A second solution to improving generational understanding lies in showing younger workers how committed their company is to learning. Here as well, an adequate response may require dismantling a traditional, one-dimensional career advancement track optimized for the needs and expectations of older generations. .

Baby boomers and Generation-Xers by and large displayed a strong preference for straight-path career advancement. In a growing economy and booming society, such career progress was normal. It led in many organizations to a myriad of titles and multi-layered management structures. But corporate cost-cutting in the 1980s and 1990s gutted many of the rigorous corporate training programs that used to launch careers in management. Once that happened, training, if offered at all, was more likely to consist of isolated two- or three-day trainings, typically offsite. But such structures no longer serve young workers today.

Younger workers have largely grown up with the realization that technology changes constantly, and that acquired knowledge quickly becomes obsolete. They’ve also witnessed the disappearance of things that older workers once considered certainties, with eroding pension and welfare systems and the economic and technological disruptions displacing many jobs—in some cases including our parents’.

With many of us now expecting to live past 100 and working well into our 70s or beyond, we are developing a different mental model about our careers: We need to become learning machines, as the set of skills and competencies we have will last five to six years maximum. Having a continuous learning journey in our professional lives is becoming more relevant, and more essential, than ever.

As a result, for companies to survive and attract and retain young people, it may be wiser to refrain from further title inflation and focus instead on lifelong learning opportunities. As a case in point, one of us (Paolo) implemented a flattening of management levels while chief HR officer of the World Economic Forum, reducing the hierarchical structure at the organization from ten levels to four. Learning programs, too, should adapt. A good starting point would be to focus them on action learning, stretch assignments, functional and geographical mobility, mentorships, and coaching.

3. “Helping others” should be an intergenerational pursuit

Finally, how about allowing young people to help older colleagues, in their own way? It may be the most harmonious of the structural changes required to reconcile generations.

That is because helping others, in our experience, has a double meaning. The first, using Viktor Frankl’s teachings, relates to “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the never-ending quest for a deeper purpose. Translating that to a modern corporate context, today’s 20-somethings often prefer to help others by doing work that has a societal purpose. This quest to “do good” has led to an arms race in which companies go out of their way to prove that their  goals also benefit society.

Conversely, organizations that have no purpose other than profit struggle to motivate today’s young workforce. And companies that ultimately have a negative societal impact—think, for example, of tobacco companies—are forced to pay high salaries to their staff. It’s a mercenary mindset for sure. But if millennials work at places where they can’t “help others” through a job with meaning and purpose, do they have another way?

Yes, because there is a second meaning of “helping others.” It relates to our inherent need to be part of a community, of a network. Here, it’s important to acknowledge that our modern social fabric consists of both physical and digital platforms, and isn’t bound to rigid, outmoded structures like the Monday-to-Friday, “9 to 5” work week. To scare away a talented millennial, just try to force him or her to show up in the office for the mandatory eight or ten hours per day, starting first thing in the morning. That won’t go down well.

But if well managed, this second, networked way of helping others can bring generations together. Baby boomers already excel at the underlying concept, even if the structural surroundings are unfamiliar; their preferred way of helping others is to help individual co-workers achieve their goals. In other words, while millennials are most satisfied if they feel they can help change the world, baby boomers are happiest when they can help a colleague.

A way to reconcile those preferences therefore could be to improve the mentorship programs between generations. While baby boomers could help younger colleagues achieve their goals, their more junior colleagues could ask to be mentored in how to make their work meaningful for society at large.

For us personally, this worked. By exchanging our views, we learned about and respected each other’s purposes more, and it made us want to work together more. The purpose that drives us, we realized, does not always need to come from the company. It can come from the people you work with and for.

There are many other challenges left in managing a company with such a diversity of workers, and intergenerational work is just one part of the puzzle. But it should be a comforting thought that for all their diversity, different generations of workers fundamentally want the same things. And while they differ in how they think about getting what they want, these diverging modalities can be reconciled in a way that creates a more fulfilling work experience for everyone involved.

Paolo Gallo is the former chief HR officer of the World Economic Forum and an executive coach. He is the author of “The Compass and the Radar: The Art of Building a Rewarding Career While Remaining True to Yourself.” Peter Vanham is a Global Leadership fellow and the US media lead at the World Economic Forum, and the author of “Before I Was CEO: Lessons from Leaders Before They Reached The Top.”