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Generation management: Getting young and old to pull together

Marginal Column

Professor Martin Klaffke teaches business administration at Berlin’s University of Technology and Economics and is head of the Hamburg Institute of Change Management. Involved in diversity management for several years now, both in the theoretical and practical spheres, and he specializes in managing multi-generation corporate personnel.
Photo: Professor Dr. Martin Klaffke

This is a topic that affects companies worldwide. When several generations work in a team, differing wishes, requirements and value systems are bound to clash. Professor Martin Klaffke maintains that only those who recognize these differences and know how to channel and utilize them will be able to gain a competitive edge in the future and attract specialists, both young and old.


Young and old have always worked together. Why do we have to manage this all of a sudden?

Even back in the days of Plato, elders were always complaining about the younger generation. This phenomenon is by no means new. New, however, is the setting that forces businesses to act. We will be experiencing populations that are ever older and ever smaller, especially in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan – and also in China over the longer term. Synchronizing the wishes and views of older generations with the ideas and expectations of the younger ones in regard to the workplace is a central challenge to companies wishing to promote the performance and loyalty of all their employees.

Of course, various generations will have to be dealt with in different ways; the nations and the cultural regions involved will also play a role. In spite of that, divergent desires are turning up in every society, all around the world. The degree to which employers respond to these desires and notions is highly dependent upon how powerful a specific generation is – the smaller, the more powerful. Even in China, a population decline is to be expected in the future if the announced relaxation of the “one-child policy” does not bring about a rise in the number of births per woman.

How can enterprises bring leverage to bear in this respect?

The first field of action is to build up esteem and understanding for one another; many studies have shown that efficiency can be sacrificed when several generations work in the same team. This is where management needs to get involved. It must create an atmosphere in which every team member feels so valued that he or she is prepared to go the extra mile. The second field of activity is to assure lifelong motivation. This is not limited to health and safety management but also involves developing personnel in every generation. Employees aged 50 to 55 should definitely be offered opportunities to further develop their skills and must be given career opportunities. To this end, senior corporate management must first create the right overall conditions with respect to personnel policy and introduce new career pattern models, for instance. Up until now, the classical linear career pattern has dominated, one that only knows moving up the ladder. To foster motivation, companies will have to concentrate more on project-based careers and multiple fields of expertise in the future. An alternative is the transitory career pattern. It offers employees the chance to step down the ladder again without losing face once a certain career peak has been reached.

What kind of new tasks await executives?

Being a facet of diversity management, the quintessence of generation management is showing appreciation for the characteristics of each employee. Management must be more individualized in its leadership. An example of this is the Y generation (in Germany, those born between 1981 and 1995). Given its socialization through social media, its members are accustomed to receiving permanent feedback. This requires that senior managers adopt a new understanding of their role. “Not scolding an employee is praise enough” no longer cuts the ice with this generation. In the future, companies must think very closely about whether the expert in a specific field is always the best manager.

What role is played by the workplaces themselves?

Even today, many companies are considering what tomorrow’s offices will look like. Frequently in the foreground is the question of how floor space can be used most efficiently. However, this is not sufficient for those who work with knowledge or information. German business is still strongly characterized by private or shared offices. Typical for the USA and UK are cubicles or open-plan offices. Combination or team-type layouts are prevalent in Sweden. These are all relatively old concepts. Only to a limited extent do they suit the activities of people who work with facts. What the future might look like can be seen in the new headquarters of the Internet giants: flexible, open offices with retreat or team rooms or back-up rooms where groups can work together. These let employees choose their working space freely, appropriate to the task at hand.

What might that look like, in concrete terms?

In the morning, I check my e-mails in the lounge and then go to a meeting in the “focus room”. After that, I do concentrated work at the computer in an open-space office and later make phone calls in the phone booth. Then I either return home to work at my office there or move to a co-working space. Such spaces have already appeared in large cities and will be expanding in the near future. In Berlin, there are already filling stations which not only offer gasoline but also work spaces for people on the move. This is accompanied, of course, by a transition from a culture of being present in the office toward a more trusting relationship with employees. In the future, employers will have to place greater confidence in the qualifications and the willingness of employees instead of keeping them under close surveillance.

Which conditions must be met to ensure that the experience gained by more senior personnel can be utilized in transferring knowledge?

Whenever different generations work together in a team, there is a danger of so-called “ingroup-outgroup mechanisms”. Certain age groups distance themselves from others and feel superior to them. This happens especially when more attention is paid to differences than to common ground and when work is distributed unfairly, i.e. younger employees get the exciting projects while the older ones are assigned only to routine jobs. However, if one focuses on the task and encourages all the employees equally, these mechanisms tend to occur much less frequently. Older employees are then much more willing to pass on their knowledge – and a young person may well be able to teach an old dog a new trick or two. In this respect, generation management is an effective tool to promote employee commitment. It is concerned about giving everyone a chance, supports promoting employees regardless of their age, and dictates paying them fairly. These are important factors in making a company an attractive employer.

That’s a good cue: What part will generation management play in retaining and building company loyalty among skilled workers?

It is a good instrument for expanding employee loyalty, since its purposes are to provide equal chances to all employees, to nurture and promote then regardless of age, and to remunerate fairly. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, employees will no longer be able to take early retirement at 55. They will stay until 65 simply because the demographics leave no other choice! In these countries, those born in the peak-fertility years from 1956 to 1965 will continue to be the backbone of the labor pool and they will have to be given appropriate support.

If people retire at a later age, doesn’t that hinder the chances for younger workers to climb the career ladder? How can that problem be solved?

This phenomenon primarily affects the group known as “Generation X” in Germany (those born here between 1966 and 1980) or the “waiting-in-the-wings generation”. Those born in the earlier boom years will remain at the helm for the next ten to fifteen years while, behind them, the “Millennials” or “Generation Y” is pressing forward. And so those in that in-between generation are faced with the question of whether they can ever achieve top salaries. This instigates call to consider professional development no longer solely in vertical terms, always climbing the career ladder to a management position. Instead, lateral development options must also be offered. This implies rotation, expanding knowledge and experience, and varied, multi-functional job content. This also makes it necessary to introduce promotion patterns within the technical sphere.