SBS Radio App

Download the FREE SBS Radio App for a better listening experience

(Getty Images)

Is there such thing as generational differences in the workplace? The answer varies. Some labour market experts believe the key to surviving and thriving in a multigenerational environment is to focus on the similarities, rather than the differences.

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Wednesday, November 22, 2017 - 15:03
6 min 2 sec

What’s it like working with millennials born between the early 80s and mid 90s? Media often stereotype baby boomers as being loyal and technologically deficient, whereas the millennials are tech-savvy and less likely to stay at a job for a long time. Skilled migrant job strategist of Tribus Lingua, Ailis Logan, notices an obvious difference from her own experiences of working with millennials.

“They have shorter attention time span but maybe that is the nature of an 18 to 29 year old, and maybe, it was my nature at that age. I don't know. I think they probably have a stronger self-esteem than our generation did in a good way in some aspects.”

It’s estimated that we could well live up to our mid-nineties by 2055 - with our life span now much longer than our grandparents’ generation.

With the pension age set to rise to 70 in less than two decades, mature workers are under more pressure than ever to reinvent themselves in a changing job market to compete with younger workers.

“When I was growing up and I was getting a job, I expected to have a job for life, I kind of had that expectation, nobody has that expectation anymore, but that also brings a lot of its own pressure.”  

Professor Philip Taylor, an age and labour market expert at Federation University, isn’t convinced that people should be boxed and labelled as millennials and baby boomers.  

“So, just because you happen to be born in an adjacent year to someone else doesn't necessarily mean that you have anything much in common with them. So, when people talk to me about millennials, well, I think about socio-economic group, I think about gender, I think about ethnicity, and I wonder really, how useful these constructs are.”

Professor Taylor says one thing millennials and boomers share is the threat of job losses from digital disruption. He predicts 2.5 million older workers could be out of work by 2031. Their existing skills will also become obsolete.

“It is important for us all to reengineer ourselves over time. Much education for instance is frontloaded - people tend to get it when they’re young and they tend to get rather less of it as they get older. I would certainly say that older people do need to rethink where they are skills-wise and even attitude-wise and engage with these economic shifts that are underway.”

Dr Catherine Rickwood is an ageing population researcher who’s had to reinvent herself with some of her old roles no longer in existence today. She believes it’s crucial to have willingness for ongoing learning in order to stay relevant and thrive in multigenerational workplaces.

“As we age, we have a responsibility to continue our education. So, to assume that once we’re in our 50s and 60s, we’ve kind of learnt all that we need to learn or that the technology is too daunting is actually limiting ourselves personally, and potentially limits our ability to engage in a business environment, if we’re talking about a work environment, with those that are younger where that is their world.”

It’s crucial to have willingness for ongoing learning in order to stay relevant and thrive in multigenerational workplaces.

Dr Catherine Rickwood mentors a team of students at Sydney University. She also employs a younger worker in her consultancy firm.

“When I’m working with younger people, I’m never assuming that my way is the right way or the only way and that there isn’t another way and a better way and that I can’t learn from them and incorporate that into my way of thinking and doing things. So, it’s just an opener to not assume that because we're older that we’ve got all the answers.”

It’s a bigger learning curve for those entering the Australian workplace from other cultures according to Ailis Logan who’s an Irish immigrant herself. She gives an example of some Malaysian managers she’s coached, who had to adjust to a more egalitarian work style.  

“I’ve worked with many Malaysians - all of them find that they’re suddenly thrust into an environment, where culturally, it’s very different. You can’t tell people what to do - they get offended - that you have to operate very differently in your management style. Your management style has to be much more flexible. Some people have the flexibility to adapt quickly and some people - that will take longer, it depends on the individual.”

Labout market experts advise refreshing your own views of the world by engaging with younger people to bypass cultural and age differences. In addition to that, one should also get to know how to communicate in an Australian business setting. 

“I didn't have that understanding myself in business - where I’m from, you make a couple of quick sentences and you get straight down to business, and I realised at the beginning, this wasn't working for me. So, for my own experiences in working with different cultures, I often say to people - get to know the culture in a non-pressured environment like volunteering so you understand how people operate, because there is a lot of small talk in Australia leading into business talk at some point, but I never could figure out when it start and stop, and how much do you tell of your personal information? How much do you not tell?”

It’s really about understanding the Australian culture by getting practical experience through English language meet up groups or volunteering.

“But in a business context, if you don't know just sit and listen, and just watch what happens, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Watch what the Romans in action and mimic their behaviour.”