Right age, wrong age?

THE DIGITAL ERA MEETS DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGE: It used to be so simple: “It’s just great to be born in this generation. Everything that’s wrong with the world is the fault of the generation before us and it’s up to us to put it right.” It is possible that these worlds of wisdom by an unknown aphorist were the result of a matching "Zeitgeist", but we at Deutsche Telekom look upon at the generation gap very differently; thinking above all about how it affects the world of work. Whereas in the older days, in business each new generation replaced the one before it following the classical principle of succession, nowadays no less than four generations encounter each other daily in our modern offices and workshops, from the baby boomers to generation X, Y and Z. And they all have to work things out together.

THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL CHANGE

The oldest of these generations were born mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, while the youngest were brought to light during the 1990s; they all have different visions and differing demands of their careers and lives. And that can make working together a little difficult. Add to this the challenges of the digital era, which are much more than just a matter of having the technical knowledge to handle digital tools effectively, for example, but rather mostly about cultural issues on how people work together. One of the issues for older workers, who were formed in an “orderly” world containing clear hierarchies and structures and have been socialized accordingly, is to integrate into the new ways of working.

Working from home or in virtual teams and using the smartphone as a mobile workstation are all routine concepts in what is often called the new working style. Agility and flexibility are now demanded from employees. All this strikes the younger generations as quite natural, as most of whom are constantly on the lookout for new challenges and opportunities to develop further. Older generations first have to get used to the new way of doing things, sometimes a stressful process.

VETERANS AND BRIGHT YOUNG MINDS

Businesses need to respect and facilitate these concerns just as much as they need to cater for the desire of younger employees for unconventional working environments and methods. Anyone who neglects issues of generation management in their business is likely to suffer the effect of conflicts between different age groups and to inspire clichés and prejudices – the "old-hands" won't be able to resist mocking youthful madnesses, while the bright young minds will moan about fossilized structures.

The experiences that leave an indelible mark for one’s whole working life usually happen between the ages of 15 and 25 years. That is why specialist writer Friedhelm Schwarz tells us that anyone who wants to truly understand people of other ages needs to look back at this period of their lives: “Developments that used to happen over several generations are now compressed into just a few years or decades.

 

LEADERSHIP MODELS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN

A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) shows that 64% of young German managers surveyed see the phenomenon of demographic change as a threat. Young managers are increasingly encountering older employees in their companies. The old-fashioned management model in which “the old lead the young” is now often being turned upside down. Managing employees substantially older than oneself often presents a challenge to younger bosses, and it is certainly a situation that takes some getting used to for both sides. The task facing younger managers need to work out how to take the edge off the intergenerational conflict – to turn rivalry into a collaborative partnership. But older co-workers will need to make their own contribution too, by taking ownership of change in the company and by giving their younger bosses and colleagues the chance they need to succeed.

 

BUILDING BRIDGES BETWEEN GENERATIONS

In terms of cooperation within a company, there is no such thing as a good or a bad age. Mentoring and reverse mentoring programs can both help to bridge the gap between the generations, especially as they affect the process of digital transformation within a multi-generational company. Older workers can, for example, share their life and work experience with their younger colleagues, who can in turn introduce their more mature colleagues to the world of the digital natives. In that context, Deutsche Telekom boss Tim Höttges has lately recommended his (older) top management team, to make the effort to adopt the perspective of their 30-year-old colleagues.

Combining the experience and knowledge of older generations with the innovative ideas and fresh perspectives of the youngsters will, at its best, benefit the whole company. That is why organizational experts recommend mixing younger and older employees together in teams.

One side is familiar with new technology and fearless in its dealings with it. The other side contributes by adding their experience and calm sense of perspective.

ESTABLISHED COMPANIES ARE GETTING "OLDER"

Wherever the digitalization process meets demographic change, there is simply no way to avoid the topic of continuing on-the-job training. Even employees 40 or 50 years old will have to continue developing their skills, if they wish avoid losing track of things, as change is currently happening in the world of work at a fast pace. And it is in the interests of the company to facilitate such development, as very many established businesses are “ageing” in the literal sense of the word. To take Deutsche Telekom in Germany as an example, the proportion of employees over 55 has increased from eleven to eighteen per cent in just the last five years. The average age of the company’s employees in Germany rose slightly to 46.1 years in 2017 (compared to a Group average of 41). For this reason alone, it is clear that it would be a mistake to arrange today’s working world simply to suit the younger generation. The point is set out clearly in the HR factbook: “In Germany we place special emphasis on collaboration and an exchange of experiences between the generations. The professional and people skills of our employees over 50 are extremely valuable to us at Deutsche Telekom in the context of the demographic changes that we are currently facing.” But it is also true that finding the right mix between up-and-coming new talent and older employees is not going to get any easier. Finding new young talent is getting more difficult. And, as Timotheus Höttges puts it: “A rejuvenation at Deutsche Telekom is an essential aim for us. Achieving this goal sounds very difficult, and it certainly will be, but it’s a question of mindset.”

 

WORRIES ABOUT LOSING YOUR JOB

Lifelong learning is becoming ever more important, not least because the digital revolution in the workplace and the automation of tasks is set to massively restructure the labor market. A great number of roles will inevitably disappear in the future, just as new jobs and work tasks are being created. And all that gives rise to another worry amongst older employees: the fear of losing their jobs, a fear that leads more than a few to take the step back into phased retirement and early-retirement arrangements.

But it is well worth dispelling one particular myth: older workers are not against new technologies, in fact they are just as open to the new opportunities they bring as their younger colleagues. But the perspective they have on new developments is usually different to that of younger workers. And that is a good thing. Ultimately, this kind of diversity can help companies deal with the issues in the social debate over the opportunities and risks posed by the digital revolution.

GENERATION NOW: A QUESTION OF ATTITUDE

By the way: as part of a new communication campaign, our Magyar Telekom Group colleagues have tapped upon this idea of generations' gap between the old and the young. As far as they are concerned, there can only be one: “Generation Now”. The question of whether we can take advantage of the opportunities posed by the digital revolution is not a matter of age, but of capabilities. And a matter of attitude, as Deutsche Telekom CRHO Christian Illek would add too.

What about you? Do you have the right or the wrong age to work in the digital age? Share your opinions with us on Twitter.

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