Working with different generations: Why compromise trumps compliance

6 February 2024

“How can we make the younger generation care about work as much as we do?”

This was a question posed in a recent workshop – and for us, it perfectly sums up the issue. While half the room was nodding along in agreement, the other half were silently thinking, “You can’t”.

The generational divide in the workplace is about more than just views on how tight your jeans should be or whether it’s OK to call the boss’s idea ‘lit’. It comes down to fundamentally different views on work and life.

The concept of quiet quitting a term that has dominated headlines recently, has highlighted this gap and pitted the two sides against one another.

The older generations who view Gen Z and Y as lazy or entitled versus the younger generation who see their ‘Boomer’ bosses as clinging to an outdated and unreasonable work ethic.

This situation raises some important questions

● Is there a way to bridge this generational divide in the workplace?

● Can we find common ground where different age groups can understand and appreciate each other’s viewpoints?

● Will there ever be a consensus on how much people should care about their jobs?

● And does this difference in work ethics really matter if everyone is meeting their professional obligations?

Appreciating diverse motivations among different age groups

This perceived shift in attitude toward work may stem from key differences between different age groups. Older generations, shaped by different cultural and economic times, tend to define themselves by their careers and believe in making work a top priority.

Younger generations value work-life balance and are more likely to push back if their needs aren’t being met. They are less driven by saving for retirement or big financial goals – as they face the reality that owning a house may be out of reach for them. Their focus is on quality of life, living with purpose and belonging. It’s less about making more profit for a company’s shareholders.

Of course, this is a broad, generalised assessment of what it’s like to work with different generations – it’s important not to assume that people will think this way just because of when they were born. But it could be helpful when trying to approach the issue with an empathetic lens.

Re-examining work values post-pandemic

The pandemic caused us to re-evaluate many aspects of our lives: how we spend our time, who we spend it with, and what we truly value. And because work makes up a big part of our lives, unsurprisingly work was high on the list of ‘things to re-evaluate’.

A few years down the track, many employers are still catching up to the importance of this.

In a McKinsey study, over 50% of people surveyed said the pandemic had caused them to reconsider the type of work they do. This figure was higher for Millennials and Gen Z, who are not only looking for work that creates social impact, but also want to feel that their work contributes to a greater purpose. Employees whose values align with the work they do are also more likely to stay with their current employer.

A Gallup poll found that 71% of millennials who know what their organisation stands for, plan to be with their company for at least one year.

Beyond generations: the role of personality

Another thing to consider if you are feeling misalignment within your team is this: could it be different personality preferences rather than generational differences?

Pinpointing different personality types in your team can help understand people’s mindsets, thought processes, and preferred communication styles- and this can help you figure out ways to help bring out the best in people.

Understanding your team’s personality mix can also help identify:

● People’s strengths and potential

● What motivates and inspires people

● How people communicate, make decisions, and handle conflict

● How they produce their best work

● Where their interests lie

And this understanding can lead to better harmony, and potentially more productivity, in your team.

Lead with compassion, not assumptions

While generational differences can present challenges in the workplace, we need to look beyond labels to see each other’s humanity. Rather than make assumptions based on age or life stage, leaders must lead with emotional intelligence: seeking to understand individual motivations, connecting people to purpose, and fostering an inclusive culture centered on open dialog.

The perceived divide between generations often stems from contrasting attitudes toward work-life balance and differing priorities shaped by cultural contexts. But fundamentally, all employees share basic needs: to feel valued, find meaning, and maintain work-life harmony.

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