Ready for the five-generation workplace?

All the talk and space given to Gen Y was just the opening act for what's to come within the next ten years, when we will begin to see five generations working side by side for the first time ever.

The next batch of entrants are those born after 1997, and according to Jeanne C Meister and Karie Willyerd at the Harvard Business Review they will be working with four other generations when they hit the workforce. That will start happening within the next 10 years.

First up are the traditionalists who were born before 1946, many of whom will remain in the workforce because they cannot afford to retire or wish to stay active for longer.

After the traditionalists come the boomers born between 1946 and 1964. They’re not going anywhere, and many of them have no plans to retire for pretty much the same reasons as the traditionalists.

Then there’s Generation X born between 1965 and 1976, followed by Gen Y born between 1977 and 1997.  As some have pointed out, we are going to see people in workplaces with a range of formative experiences, from World War Two to the Cold War to the War on Terror to World of Warcraft.

Welcome to the future. So what can we expect?

Stereotyping generations is always problematic, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest we are shaped by the events of our formative years, whether it’s the demonstrations and rebelliousness of the 60s to events like terrorism and recession. So as much as one can generalise (and you have to be careful doing that because there are always exceptions), some maintain that boomers are better team players while Gen X are supposed to be more the individualists and Gen Y supposed to be more team oriented.

The next lot, generation Z as some like to call them, will change everything again. Penelope Trunk at the Brazen Careerist site says they will be smarter, more educated and because they grew up with the internet, Facebook and text messaging, they will be able to process information a lot faster.

Trunk writes: “How does this affect the workplace? A wider range of people can do cognitively challenging jobs. And, if you think Gen Y is obnoxious about being better at processing information than the older people, think how Gen Y will feel when the next generation tells them their IQ is much higher. And they’re right.”

As I see it, there are four potential flashpoints for conflict in a five generation workplace. These are work ethic, organisational hierarchies, dealing with change and managing technology.

HR experts identify several ways to handle potential problems. The first is to consider the generational factor. Is there a conflict going on because these people were born at different points in time or is something else going on?

To bridge these differences, you need to consider the values of the different generations (eg boomers like team work and buy in, while Gen Xers just want to get things done), find creative ways to get them working together (eg getting boomers and traditionalists to work as mentors, assigning special assignments for Gen X and getting Gen Y and Gen Z to work the technology and identify emerging trends).

Roberta Matuson at Human Resources Solutions says a number of things will have to change. Employers will have to embrace social networking, they will have to work out how to communicate with a generation that knows how to do it with 140 characters or less, they will have to get rid of long winded memos and change training programs to e-learning and online game simulations.

If nothing else, this will make for some interesting water cooler conversations in 10 years time.

How do you think the five different generations will get along?