· Features

Generations learn from each other

A new report sees HR's role as harnessing the potential of four generations working together.

In 1970, a 27-year-old Mick Jagger told the world: "I'd rather be dead than singing Satisfaction when I'm 45." This year Sir Mick celebrated his 65th birthday and, doubtless reflecting on the profit of $437 million the band raked in during their most recent tour, changed his tune somewhat by insisting that "I'm sure the Rolling Stones will do more things, and more records, and more tours. We've got no plans to stop any of that".

While Jagger was crooning, research published by Watson Wyatt this summer suggests the Stones aren't the only ones anticipating a working life well beyond the state retirement age. Surveying more than 2,000 UK employees of large private-sector organisations, Watson Wyatt found that 85% believe pensions alone will be inadequate and they will have to find additional ways to fund their retirement. For most, of course, this will mean staying on in the workplace, so the age profile of many organisations appears destined to shift significantly.

All of which makes a recent report by Penna Recruitment Communications (PRC) on the current state of intergenerational diversity of particular interest. The report, Gen Up, points out that "never before have we seen four generations in the workplace" - and that with a fifth generation about to emerge on the employment scene, the potential for "misunderstanding and even conflict" is very real.

The research highlights the factors which serve to attract, engage and retain the four existing workplace generations, which PRC defines as Veterans (aged over 60), Baby Boomers (45-60), Generation X (30-45) and Generation Y (18-30). Meanwhile, Generation Z (under 18) lurks in the wings. It's fascinating stuff, with the report clearly describing HR's future role in finding a way through the minefield of diametrically opposed motivations and values.

For example, it tells us that Gen Yers are attracted to opportunities that offer personal development and the chance for growth within a role. At the same time, Veterans are looking for opportunities to coach and mentor others, as well as recognition f or the value their experience brings. Who could ask for a better fit? Aspirant mentor and willing 'mentee'.

When the shared needs of all four generations are factored in, you are left with a real sense that four, or even five, generations working together may not just be feasible, it could be brilliant. But I believe there are two main challenges for HR to harness this potential.

First, I believe we need to lead the debate about what it means to be a responsible employer and, in particular, where an organisation should take a more active role in supporting its employees. For example, with so many people having to work beyond the age of retirement, should employers be putting more effort into financial education? I believe we should.

Second, we need to undertake a fundamental review of the varied needs of a generationally diverse workforce, and embed the way we meet these needs into the strategy of our organisations. For example, the PRC research found that 50% of younger workers were willing to work longer - and 75% of Veterans were happy to consider working beyond retirement - if they could decide the hours they worked. Organisations where flexibility for all is hard-wired into their day-to-day practices will have a real advantage.

But the final word for those continuing to work beyond retirement age should, I believe, be left to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who said of the group's intentions to continue performing: "We just enjoy it. We think we're getting the hang of this thing, you know?" A true Veteran, Richards will be 65 in December.

- See also 'Time to grow up' - Generation Y and recruitment, Recruitment Supplement, p04.

David Fairhurst is senior vice-president/chief people officer, McDonald's Restaurants Northern Europe.