Generational diversity in the workplace


Nowadays, small business owners span different age groups, from people in their teens (and even younger) all the way to the ‘golden oldies’ who choose to remain active past the traditional retirement age of 65.

In the South African context ( The Talent Hub ), the different generations are loosely grouped into four categories, each with its own characteristics influenced by the social, political and economic climate they were raised in:

  1. The Silent Generation – Born between 1930 and 1949, they respect authority and hierarchy value loyalty and discipline and see work as an obligation.
  2. The Baby Boomers – Born between 1950 and 1969, they are workaholics who value money and titles, are good team players, and see work as an exciting adventure.
  3. Generation X – Born between 1970 and 1989, they are self-reliant, entrepreneurial, value personal time outside of work, and see work as either a contract or a difficult challenge.
  4. Generation Y – Born between 1990 and 2005, they do not fear authority, value their freedom and personal space even more than Generation X, prefer a collaborative environment, expect to be treated as equals, and see work as a means to an end.

Given that small business owners and their employees are increasingly likely to come from different generations, managing this kind of diversity in the workplace is an important skill to acquire. Small business owners may even need to develop different leadership and communication styles depending on the employees they are dealing with instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, understanding how the different generations prefer to communicate and interact (e.g. face-to-face meetings versus phone calls versus e-mail and SMS) has a direct impact on productivity, as well as the clarity and speed with which crucial information is conveyed to employees.

Whilst the small business owner may be comfortable with SMS and instant messaging, some employees may prefer face-to-face discussions and not respond to SMS; finding a way to accommodate these differences is crucial to avoid a complete breakdown in communication or a build-up of resentment. The mindsets of the different generations also influence their expectations of how they progress in the organization and are remunerated.

Employees who are Generation Y may expect to have their cake and eat it too (i.e. rapid advancement through the ranks and good remuneration without any hard grind on their part), whilst members of the Silent Generation may be more patient and modest in their expectations. Small business owners, therefore, face the challenge of creating a work environment that treats employees fairly but recognizes their different needs and time horizons.

The more generational diversity there is in the workplace, the greater the demands that will be placed on small business owners to create a vibrant and harmonious workplace. But for small business owners who face the challenge head on instead of shying away from it, the benefits include strong, balanced teams



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