Date posted: 01/12/2016 5 min read

Generational change in the workplace

How is generational change best managed in the c-suite? CEOs offer their experience.

In brief

  • As the baby boom generation reaches retirement, younger faces in the c-suite are challenging ideas and bringing a new culture
  • Boomers should be prepared to learn from generations X and Y while also being prepared to share the wisdom they have gained through experience
  • The world is heading towards a more integrated, multi-disciplinary learning style and “accepting with a social mind” rather than following the individualistic path familiar to boomers

“Things are different now,” says an audit partner from a Big Four firm.

“We came straight from university. There was no gap year. We dressed formally, worked late and weekends, never took sick leave and would not consider leaving the firm, or going on a scheduled holiday, or weekend, if work was outstanding.

“By contrast, the new generation work when they want to, have no loyalty, think nothing of taking a gap year or sabbatical and will change employers, and even back again, on a whim. Not only can they wear what they want, they are free to come to work when they like — and they do.”

In the extreme form above, a boomer perspective on generations X and Y can be quite confrontational. But views across the board reveal stark differences in working styles and expectations across the age divide. As the baby boom generation reaches retirement,  younger faces in the c-suite are challenging ideas and bringing a new culture.

Boomer perspectives

There are opportunities in the challenge, says Dr Kerry Bennet, CEO of The Graduate Union of the University of Melbourne. He believes boomers should be prepared to learn from generations X and Y while also being prepared to share the wisdom they have gained through experience.

“Our younger members are the product of different parenting styles, have more knowledge of psychology and can be assertive without being aggressive,” Bennet says.

“They have more confidence.”

He suggests the world is heading towards a more integrated, multi-disciplinary learning style and “accepting with a social mind” rather than following the individualistic path familiar to boomers.

“For the younger generations ‘teaming’ is the thing,” Bennet says.

Auckland-based chartered accountant and business consultant Wayne Williams CA agrees that “teaming” is a common trait of generations X and Y.

“I see a lot of movers and shakers teaming up with mates. They are quick to back themselves and speculate in property and technology. They are less conservative than boomers and see collaboration as a way to access expertise and minimise risk.”

Williams says a lot of business owners in their 60s are hanging on rather than retiring early, as was once a popular goal.

“They were knocked by the global downturn and need to ‘squeeze the lemon a bit harder’ in terms of earnings multiples to sell their businesses, and income from their investments.”

David Woods OAM, one of the WWII-era founders and chairman of the 45-year-old Melbourne charity Open House Christian Involvement Centres, sees establishing a sound foundation as key to handing over the reins successfully. Woods is older than his boomer colleagues and notes that his generation managed the boomers “quite closely”.

“But now as we hand over to the third generation (X and Y), both at a board and management level, as long as the Christian mission and ethos of friendship does not change, they can decide what or how the goals are achieved.”

His CEO Paul Burgess stresses the value of robust discussion and clear communication at the executive table.

“Recently the board discussed an issue where there were quite different (generational) views,” Burgess says.

“That’s a healthy and natural development as the mix of boomers and generations X and Y changes. After talking it though we agreed a way forward.”

Perspectives X and Y

Johann Odou, founder and CEO of Melbourne-based PSCL Global, a data mining and analytics company (that runs the world’s largest finance, Excel and modelling competition) says the new breed of executives are more innovative and entrepreneurial than their forebears.

“I chose to go out on my own, so I have to find solutions,” Odou says.

“Generations X and Y are more entrepreneurial with a greater willingness to challenge the status quo and say, ‘that can be done’.”

Technology plays a part in this new attitude, Odou says, noting a new app can be developed over a weekend for a few hundred dollars — whereas it previously would have required a detailed business plan, multiple level approvals and thousands of dollars.

“Boomers have ‘the curse of knowledge’ and programmed ways of doing things. This can be an issue,” he says.

“For example, all the ‘experts’ told Elon Musk he could not build Telsa with technology as its base. Not coming from an automotive background, he did not know what was not possible — he just did it.

“Generations X and Y have grown up with what is possible changing on a yearly, monthly, or even weekly basis. We know and accept what was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow.

“If we reach a roadblock we do not give up — we go and find another way using technology and social media. We do not have the same privacy fears as boomers. For us it is all about collaboration, not privacy.”

Odou says feedback from two world-leading technology companies that work closely with PSCL backs this up.

“PSCL was told recently, ‘with our [boomer] culture we could never have achieved what you have — your [generations X and Y] speed of thinking, and ability to try new ideas, is your key to success’.”

Michael Bird is the founder and CEO of the Melbourne-based Social Garden, which specialises in customer acquisition solutions for the blue chip enterprise, property and higher-education markets.

“It’s difficult for us to recruit as no one has done what we are doing,” Bird says.

“Our criterias are ‘attitude plus an ability and willingness to learn’. Technology changes so fast. Someone may be the guru today but be out of date in a year. We need people who are not afraid to take a chance. Social Garden offers team members lots of training and development and, importantly, the opportunity to use the very best emerging technologies at work, every day.

Some of Social Garden’s HR practices would leave boomers scratching their heads.

“We give candidates a [secret] book and ask them to read as much of it as they like and then summarise it in 300 words. It tells us a lot if they are prepared to read it and how they ‘translate’ concepts into their language.

“We let staff work one week a year overseas. This means they can travel and get paid. Instead of two weeks, they can go for three. And they tend to come back rather than resign before they go.”

Like the boomer CEOs, Bird notes communication is key to business success across the generations.

Generations X and Y have grown up with what is possible changing on a yearly, monthly, or even weekly basis.
Johann Odou Founder and CEO of Melbourne-based PSCL Global 

“In the digital economy decision makers for large budgets are still boomers. It’s increasingly difficult to describe new technology and the opportunities it brings. We have hired technology literate boomers who have added a lot of value to our sales side as they can translate and describe our market offering for decision makers. We closely match our sales team to the ‘tech savvy’ level of our clients.”

A matter of time

It’s an issue that is hitting home right now, with the average age of boomers 61 — just a few years short of retirement. But it is an issue that may be with us for some time as the trend to working longer into life takes hold and boomers continue to participate in the workforce.

PwC’s Golden Age Index reveals New Zealand is the second best-performing OECD country in harnessing the power of workers aged 55 or over. Australia ranked 22nd.

“Kiwis don’t have a fixed retirement age so older workers can retire when they want to and, on average, those that do ‘retire’, continue to work shorter hours per week,” says PwC Partner Scott Mitchell CA.

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

Strategies for dealing with the trans-generational switch

  • Strategy

    Hire only generations X&Y.

    Generations X and Y at management level, boomers at board level.

    Create generation X and Y sub units within (or contracted into) enterprises.

    Mix generations X and Y and boomers in together.

    Ignore intergenerational challenges.

  • Advantage

    Internal culture aligns with the new technology economy. Reduced inter-generational friction.

    Board sets the mission. Management makes it happen – their way.

    Best of all worlds. Match culture to task.

    Optimises the value of wisdom and experience as an input. Generations can learn from and feed off each other.

    Let the best ideas rise to the top. One way for all staff.

  • Disadvantage

    Hard to engage with key customers’ boomer decision makers. No “old wisdom” and experience.

    Board members face challenges in signing off things they do not understand.

    No business unit can be an island. Collaboration and translation will be required.

    Boomers struggle to let go of a “command and control”, frustrating generations X and Y. Boomers may hold back the generation X and Y search for a better way.

    Generations X and Y leave to seek organisations better aligned to their preferred work styles and cultures.