Leading the 6-Generation Workforce (hbr.org)


Leading the 6-Generation Workforce

For the first time in history, many workplaces span six generations: from the octogenarians of the Silent Generation who are still working — and in many cases still holding onto key global leadership roles — to the teenagers of the emerging Generation Alpha who are eagerly pursuing their first summer jobs and high school internships. In between are the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (often called the Millennials), and Generation Z.

To be sure, this unprecedented age span could afford organizations unique opportunities to reimagine and reposition themselves for sustainable intergenerational inclusion and impact. At the same time, where executives are unwilling or unprepared to engage this new six-generation (6G) reality, organizational chaos and decline may ensue.

Here are five steps leaders can take to create healthy 6G organizations.

1. Develop a 6G organizational strategy.

Every organization needs a 6G organizational strategy. To be clear, this is not a special “six-generation strategy” that sits apart from the organization’s core strategic plan. Instead, developing a 6G organizational strategy is about ensuring that the discipline of 6G-thinking is embedded within — and evident throughout — your organization’s strategy, dashboards, and scorecards. In other words, 6G strategic thinking can make your organization’s strategy come alive.

At first glance, such a strategy might appear to be the exclusive domain of your talent management team. But this about more than recruiting, retaining, and advancing talent from all generations. Leaders are also tasked with creating the conditions that incentivize older and younger workers alike to be open to learning from and with one another, sharing their wisdom and know-how without fear or insecurity.

As America navigates the so-called “peak 65” demographic benchmark with over 4 million Americans projected to reach age 65 every year through the end of the decade — that’s more than 11,000 people every day — effective succession planning is essential for organizational sustainability. Thinking in 6G requires organizations to undertake the hard work of figuring out how to become employers-of-choice for every generation (not just the younger ones), anchored by a compelling employer brand that is both authentic and attentive to each generation’s workplace needs and preferences.

However, beyond the traditional internal people-and-culture types of issues, there are critical market-facing dimensions for which 6G strategy is necessary. 6G strategy ensures the evolving needs, tastes, and preferences of a 6G consumer and/or customer base are understood, prioritized, and addressed through the organization’s products or services. For example, the thought process that led Chevrolet to refresh its iconic Corvette embodies the heart of this thinking. To broaden its customer base beyond its average consumer, pegged at age 61 (and rising), Chevrolet’s strategic redesign and brand repositioning effort doubled sales to Gen Xers. In short, strategizing with a 6G mindset — and involving voices from all six generations — is just as important for marketplace impact as it is for workplace impact.

2. Manage both age-based differences and generational differences.

Building healthy 6G organizations involves a nuanced understanding of two related but distinct dimensions of human difference: age-based and generational diversity. Age effects give us a snapshot of how individuals differ based on where they are in the life cycle (e.g., toddler, emerging adult, or in the final third of their lives). Generations, on the other hand, are cohorts of individuals who were born at a similar time (often over a 15- to 20-year span) and had their worldviews shaped by the same key national/global events, trends, and social forces (e.g., economic recessions, wars, social movements, breakthrough technologies) in their formative years.

Age and generation are often conflated. Some of the dynamics in the 6G workplace that are attributed to age are actually due to generational differences. And conversely, there are other attitudinal and behavioral differences (e.g., investment risk tolerance and voting participation) that have less to do with generation than with age/life-stage diversity.

To be sure, efforts to deepen diversity, accelerate inclusion, and institutionalize equity (DEI) are sources of contention and controversy in many organizations. However, it is important to note that diversity is about more than human differences based on sex/gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, disability status, and/or religious identity. Whereas many of these diversity dimensions vary in their relevance from culture to culture, age and generational differences impact every organization in every culture around the world.

The science is clear: Diversity can make our teams and organizations smarter, more creative, more innovative, and more profitable. As global life expectancy continues to increase and many organizations grapple with mandatory retirement ages for executives and board members, age and generational differences take on renewed significance. It can be tricky to ensure that your organization’s playing field is level for people of all ages/generations to thrive. It can be challenging to ensure that job applicants and employees alike don’t feel like they must hide their age or apologize for being a member of their generation just to get access to opportunity in your organization. In short, leaders in 6G organizations must be prepared to manage the challenges created by both age-based and generational diversity.

3. Look at generations as cultures.

Multigenerational teams often experience significant interpersonal tensions in collaborating across the generational divides: differences in norms regarding the use of technology, communication norms around giving and receiving feedback, perceptions of what “hard work” and “good leadership” look like, just to name a few. When faced with these tensions, many people — from all generations — resort to stereotyping, judging, and then attempting to “fix” the other generations. However, differences do not have to be divisive. Instead of looking at generational differences as problems to be solved, leaders would be well advised to look at them as sources of richness and vibrancy to be understood, appreciated, and even leveraged.

Culture informs a common way of thinking that motivates a common way of doing among cohorts of individuals. Cultures give insight into where people are “from” — and so do generations. Just like cultural differences, generational differences can distinguish teammates from one another without dividing them from one another.

Viewing generations as cultures can help leaders foster inclusive environments of mutual respect, honor, and inclusion in which everyone can be their best and bring their best every day. The same skill of cross-cultural agility, which enables people to wisely navigate across lines of cultural difference with humility, curiosity, and flexibility, can help teammates of different generations productively engage with one another without an underlying sense of cultural — or generational — superiority.

4. Reimagine the 6G talent pipeline.

Another important challenge that leaders must confront is the increasing congestion in the talent pipeline. At one end is often a bottleneck of more seasoned workers in top positions who, as they approach “retirement age,” are either financially unable or psychologically unwilling to retire and have nowhere else in the talent pipeline to advance. At the other end is often younger talent impatiently waiting their turn for advancement into more challenging roles because the pipeline is clogged. In the middle are the so-called “sandwich generations,” sitting frustrated as the unwritten rules of the game change right before their eyes. While these challenges are not entirely new, the 6G workplace exacerbates them.

To create healthy 6G organizations, leaders must reimagine their talent pipelines altogether. One of the most pressing opportunities to decongest the talent pipeline is to create meaningful opportunities for senior talent to remain engaged in post-executive roles. Such positions must include more than honorific titles, be positioned as a positive step forward instead of a step aside (or a step back), and carry real value in transferring knowledge, sharing experiences and expertise, and mentoring younger colleagues without the weight and time commitment of executive-level responsibility. One great example is Mitre Corporation’s “Reserves at the Ready” program, which leverages retired employees with valuable technical and customer service expertise to periodically staff projects as mentors to younger workers.

When more openings are created at the top of the pipeline, this movement enables the second key piece of reimagining the pipeline: engaging and retaining younger talent by more intentionally designing the path to advancement. The “keep calm and wait your turn” approach to talent advancement is a surefire way to lose top young talent.

Leaders can take a page out of the hospital emergency department playbook and leverage queuing theory to help them manage their employees’ career path experiences. To summarize, the length of time that people will wait — whether in a grocery store checkout line, a theme park, or a hospital emergency department — depends upon the perceived value of what they hope to get and the quality of the waiting experience. For example, people wait willingly for hours to experience their favorite theme park rides, both because of the excitement they can see and hear from the riders ahead of them and because there is fun to be had during the wait. In the queue, there’s entertainment and clarity on the length of the wait and the cause of any delays. Employers can create the same sense of willingness to wait by gamifying career pathing: showing people how they can advance by anticipating — and working toward — the “next level.” By building 6G talent pipeline architecture, companies can ensure that people can move forward on a career path with more intentionality and transparency, not to mention joy and maybe even commitment to the organization.

5. Center purpose as the great intergenerational unifier.

The tensions between older and younger workers are not new. Now, some human capital futurists believe that we are on our way to a post-generational workforce environment — a paradigm that suggests the path forward might be to transcend generational differences instead of overly focusing on them. Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey suggests that the post-pandemic workforce may be characterized by greater cross-generational alignment regarding what people want out of work (such as meaning, purpose, and growth). This means leaders have the opportunity to capitalize on that intergenerational alignment by designing organizational life around the importance of purpose.

Centering personal and organizational purpose represents a critical opportunity for leaders on the quest to build sustainable 6G organizations. It’s not just members of the younger generations who are motivated by purpose, preferring to work for organizations that make a positive difference. McKinsey reports employees at all levels want purpose in their lives. Embracing this commonality elevates the conversation around the company’s purpose, why it matters, how it is experienced by colleagues, customers, and clients. To do this, leaders must move beyond the marketing spin and commit to helping colleagues see how working in their organization can help them activate their own personal sense of purpose while coming together with others to fulfill the organization’s purpose at the same time.

Each of these five steps can help leaders build healthy 6G organizations that are designed for intergenerational sustainability in the workplace and the marketplace. Giving each generation — and, importantly, each individual — the opportunity to be seen, understood, valued, and leveraged in the workplace throughout the course of their career is essential for personal, social, and even societal well-being.