Listening down the generations
From millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, through to the generation Xers of the 1960s and the baby boomers of the 1940s and 1950s, the British workforce spans a greater age range than ever before
Currently the over-forties represent the largest working group, but by 2024 studies show that the over-fifties will be the largest cohort of workers. And as the workforce ages, inevitably there will be added pressures, as well as opportunities, for businesses to attract and retain the best employees from across the different generations.
But has generational inclusion been placed high enough on the agenda of large companies, which undoubtedly face other challenges around the inclusion of women as well as ethnic minorities and LGBT communities?
That was the subject of a BAE Systems-sponsored diversity and inclusion roundtable held in conjunction with The Daily Telegraph.
“As a ‘gen Xer’ or ‘latchkey kid’ I’m probably one of the last generation to have ridden a bike without a helmet, to have walked to school and back and to have experienced life without a mobile phone,” reflects Anne Jenkins, head of diversity and inclusion at BAE Systems.
According to Ms Jenkins, BAE Systems has a large cohort of people from the baby boomer generation, who have a huge amount of wisdom and experience, which they are keen is passed on to the other generations within the company. “I was recently talking to one of our senior engineers who had been giving some advice to a young apprentice not to close her options too early because you can never predict which technologies are around the corner.”
BAE Systems offers a mentoring programme so that older workers can impart wisdom to younger workers, as well as a “reverse mentoring” programme so that younger workers are able to pass on their knowledge and new ideas to older workers. Similarly, at Engineering UK it’s about “upskilling” older members of the workforce, especially around developments in social media.
For Dr Paul Redmond, director of student life at the University of Manchester, having up to five generations in the workforce is “causing chaos” for many companies, particularly around the use of technology. “The problem is that all the generations see the world in a different way and organisations are just beginning to wake up to this,” Redmond told the roundtable.
“The danger is that it’s digital immigrants like me trying to make decisions for digital natives and that’s where the clash occurs,” he adds.
However, putting different generations together can also be beneficial to companies, according to BAE Systems’ education and skills director, Richard Hamer. “Experienced people and young people always work well together,” he explains. “Putting them together can create a dynamic environment.” He cites an example in Barrow, where older people in their sixties are working part time on nuclear submarines and sharing their knowledge with younger people coming into the business.
For Melanie Washington, head of careers at Engineering UK, older people can also help bridge the skills gap at least in the short term
Research at the company reveals that there is a need to recruit 1.82 million people to work in engineering between now and 2022.
“We do this through attract, secure and retain policies,” explains Ms Washington. “With retain it’s about looking at the baby boomers and how we can keep them in the workforce for longer.”
Tony Horan, at management consultancy company Accenture UK, has also witnessed the trend towards generations working more closely together. “We see a huge opportunity to bring diverse perspectives with old and younger generations,” says Mr Horan, head of inclusion and diversity. “Younger people provide reverse mentoring to some of our senior executives for social media and digital technology, while the executives are leveraging their experience for the benefit of the youth.”
However, at the same time as encouraging older staff to stay on at work, all the panellists agreed it’s also vital to recruit new people into the business. “You ignore the pipeline at your peril,” warns Diane Thornhill, human resources director for Arup. “We saw that during the recession where we switched off some of the early careers recruitment and then, three to five years later, your engine room suffers.”
At BAE Systems, where the average age of employees is forty-plus, there is an increased focus on its early careers programme, with around 8 per cent of its staff under the age of 24. “We’re also working hard recruiting more women and different types of people, including young unemployed people through the Movement to Work programme, as well as charity partners such as The Prince’s Trust and Job Centre Plus,” explains Mr Hamer. “It’s important to try to change the image of engineering, which can seem a bit historic and dated.”
Like BAE Systems, the average age of an employee at Amey is also in the forties, although ages within the public service provider firm vary considerably. “We do have a great deal of age diversity,” says Coral Taylor, inclusion business partner at Amey. “Our youngest people are under 18, our oldest are in their eighties. We’re all about valuing everyone and making sure everyone feels part of our workforce.”
Claire Wakelin, associate director at Atkins, regularly sees the different generations working together. “The nature of our work is team based and requires a range of people and skills to do it,” she says.
Working collaboratively comes particularly naturally to millennials, who have “grown up working in teams”, points out Dr Redmond. He also sees millennials as more entrepreneurial than previous generations. “They aspire to be entrepreneurs even more than Baby Boomers aspired to be rock stars. These days it’s more likely to be Zuckerberg than Zimmerman who is the greatest influence,” he says.
Providing flexible working is also becoming increasingly important for all companies right across different generations of the workforce. A few years ago Dell launched a scheme called the “Connected Workplace”, which gives its employees the opportunities to work from anywhere.
“It’s not about where you work anymore, it’s about how you work,” explains Dan Grant, director for HR services at Dell UK and Ireland. “It’s really helped us to attract millennials who maybe want to go to a festival at the weekend but it’s also allowed some of our more mature employees who have family and elderly care issues to deal with. Flexibility is now the single most important thing that our team members value.”
Ms Thornhill, meanwhile, believes the influx of millennials into Arrup has had a positive impact on the older generations, too. “Millennials challenge them to get more of a worklife balance in their lives because that’s important to them,” she says.
Finally, the idea of a job for life is becoming an outdated concept in this day and age, with many people taking “different roles over many years, even within one organisation”, according to Ms Wakelin.
Another problem is that those job opportunities are changing rapidly, points out Dr Redmond. “We somehow have to prepare the current generation for jobs that don’t yet exist and companies that aren’t yet trading,” he says. “That’s the real challenge we face with the current generation of employees who will be working into the 2060s.”