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By Kevin Hylton
For the first time in history, there are now five generations in the workplace at the same time, according to Purdue University. This includes Traditionalists (born 1925-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-2000) and Generation Z (2001-2020).
“Workers from different generations bring different expectations and life experiences to the workplace,” reported Duke University's Human Resources blog. “This can be particularly challenging for managers attempting to lead teams comprised of workers from different generations. Lack of trust between older and younger workers often yields a culture of competition and resentment that leads to real productivity losses.”
These generational differences are accelerating today with the workplace advancement of Millennials and the introduction to the workforce of Gen Z.
“There is an inter-generational rift emerging in the workplace today,” said Jennifer Rubin, a partner at Mintz, who co-leads the firm’s Environmental Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) Practice Group. “The fact is that there is a new generation of employees coming into the workplace who are thinking about work differently than those of us from previous generations.”
Rubin argues in an article published in Corporate Counsel that “a new generation of tech-savvy, social justice-focused and environmentally aware employee stakeholders are creating recruitment, retention and other employment challenges.”
Rubin has observed that this rift — what she refers to as the “Generation We Gap” — cuts across employers operating in all industries and geographic regions. She notes that recruiting new workers with a different generational mindset is certainly a challenge, but perhaps the even more serious difficulty for employers is with retention of these younger employees.
“For example, part of the challenge that I’ve seen with retaining younger employees is a feeling that, if someone is not achieving their career goals immediately, there is much more of willingness to simply walk away from a job,” she said.
She also notes that the younger generation of workers is more likely to focus on their immediate perceptions of a company’s mission or its publicly stated views on certain social justice issues. If they don’t like what they see and hear, they may well quit on the spot and go find a new job without giving it a second thought.
“I think that one of the solutions to this multi-generational workforce gap is for employers to articulate the company’s broader mission and then listen to new employees about their own goals and aspirations,” said Ms. Rubin. “These younger workers want to know what the mission and the purpose of the organization is and whether that aligns with their individual life purposes. These issues are becoming very important to employees and the employers who are able to articulate very solid answers to those questions are the ones who are going to win in this hiring landscape.”
Of course, one of the major challenges this creates is how to balance broad questions about corporate mission and social purpose with the realities of operating a for-profit business.
“If you’re supposed to be operating a company for the benefit of the shareholders, who presumably want to make money and see their investments grow, employers need to think about how to square that with a changing workforce comprised of new employees who want the company to be mission-driven on environmental and social issues,” Rubin said.
Rubin notes that she has seen some specific employer initiatives achieve success with meeting these dual objectives. For example, “paid volunteerism” is an increasingly popular strategy in which the company provides a paid day off for employees to go serve their communities in ways that align with their individual passions and life purposes. And “compassionate leave” is an emerging human resource benefit in which the company provides paid time off for women who have suffered a miscarriage and men whose partners have suffered a miscarriage, a benefit that doesn’t fit within traditional categories of leave but illustrates a meaningful commitment from employers to provide more individual support to employees beyond what may be technically required.
In the end, she advises employers that this inter-generational transition requires taking a step back and thinking about how different employees approach their experiences and then trying to manage those issues in a way that is beneficial to the overall workforce.
“The key is to understand that these generational differences can be managed in a way that truly is beneficial,” she emphasized. “For example, I learn a lot from more junior lawyers who work with me. I find their wisdom helpful and I’m very appreciative of it. The smart employers will take a step back and give a lot of credence to some of the issues raised by the younger generation of new employees, such as working remotely and what it means to be collegial in today’s environment.”
Rubin is a nationally recognized thought leader in labor and employment law, and has contributed a number of expert insights with LexisNexis Practical Guidance, including a practice video that highlights how employment law intersects with Environmental Social & Governance (ESG) issues and a practice note that reviews key employer considerations related to COVID-19 return-to-work policies.
I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Rubin on the debut episode of our new “Practical Guidance: Labor and Employment Series” podcast, where we invite experts to provide insights on timely employment law issues facing legal practitioners. Listen now or download the episode regarding legal tips for recruiting and retaining employees in the current hiring landscape.