Older staff, young colleagues – a challenge to personnel managers

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Older staff, young colleagues – a challenge to personnel managers


The one, born in 2000 – the YouTube generation, a Tik-Tok fan – is searching for self-realisation; the other, born in 1958, so coming from the time of the German Economic Miracle, is an old hand, with a living-to-work ethos. What do they have in common? They are colleagues. Does that function effectively? It must do, since both are working for the same corporate goals. Their attitudes and approaches are as different as the times from which they come...and so there’s trouble now and then. How are generational conflicts to be solved in the workplace? What do older employees have to offer? And what makes them special? In this blog article we attempt to give some answers.    


40 years’ age difference and plenty of material for conflict

In many companies several generations work together. In many the age difference between fellow employees is forty years or more. If younger employees begin when they are just qualified, they meet older employees, often with a history of long service to the firm – a challenge to the employer and its personnel department. While the older employees have a thorough experience of life, professional expertise and knowledge of the corporate processes, and are thoroughly established in its structures, the well-motivated newcomers bring new ideas and unconventional approaches with them. As “digital natives” they are perfectly familiar with software, smartphones and social media and are bold enough to question existing situations. With these different generations in the workplace, disparate attitudes, approaches and skills clash with each other – so conflicts are programmed in advance.   


Approaching generational conflict at management level

As a personnel manager you must work to ensure that all employees get on with each other and collaborate together. Ultimately, the task is to attain corporate goals and to stay competitive. So you should familiarise yourself with the subject thoroughly and approach generational conflicts in a targeted way at management level. The essential task is to avert differences between the generations by keeping your eye constantly on collaboration between young and old and to encourage it with accompanying measures.  


What makes older employees so valuable: dispassionate composure and an overall view

Mixed teams contribute varied outlooks drawn from experience, which complement each other valuably. Companies often underestimate the qualities of their older employees. These have a wider wealth of experience than the younger ones – experience of life, but also professional expertise. In complex situations they maintain an overall view, are more relaxed and worldly-wise. They can negotiate more prudently with difficult customers. When it is a question of optimising products, older employees look on the question as a whole and can distinguish and evaluate their planned activities along with their consequences in a holistic way; they see the whole process chain – many young colleagues lack this overview. Because of their experience, too, their management skills are mostly higher. Moreover they possess a sure feeling for questions of quality.     


The generational models

Each era stamps its people in a quite particular way. By using the sociological description of generations as baby boomers or Generation X, an attempt has been made to provide simple explanatory models. The generalised ascription of a person’s generation-based attitudes, skills and needs within his working world is intended to help understand how generations tick. The most they can do is to indicate tendencies – i.e., exceptions and grey areas are taken for granted. What has actually influenced an individual person in their thinking and acting must be reserved for more differentiated investigations. Enough has been published on the topic of generations, which is why I shall give just a general overview below.    


From baby boomers to Generation YouTube

The baby boomers comprise those born in the high birth-rate decades of the mid-50s to mid-60s, who were there to experience the Cold War and the German Economic Miracle. Baby boomers are accustomed to work hard and to deal successfully with privations. Work and career are more important to them than the private sphere. At the same time they belong to the “digital immigrants”, who only learned to deal with computers and digital media when they were adults. Generation X are those born between 1965 and 1980. The first generation to grow up with video games and well educated, they strive above all for financial security. Unlike the baby boomers, they steer clear of a workaholic attitude; more important instead is a critical search for meaning and a work-life balance – i.e., a working-to-live ethos. To Generation Y (born 1981 to 1994), enjoying work is important, but they prefer to do it in flat career paths rather than management positions. The Millennials prize flexibility and free allocation of their time, aim in their company to uphold private interests surrounding leisure time and family life, e.g. through a sabbatical. Anyone born between about 1995 and 2010 is called Generation Z. This “YouTube Generation”, grown up with smartphones, strives for a separation between job and private life and for an intact work-life balance. Established structures are important for them, such as permanent employment contracts and rules on time-off.       


Attitudes to work: a first point of conflict

Among various potential conflicts comes that of apparently different attitudes to work. For older people work has a high value. To attain a goal, e.g. an increase in salary, they will work a lot and work hard. Younger people are said to take a less strict attitude to work. They define themselves less in terms of career, salary and position, but rather in terms of meaningful work which is enjoyable, which is interpreted as a lack of commitment. While older people have a clear idea of how to attain a working goal, younger employees see in this clarity of vision only an entrenched, obstructive attitude and prefer to be guided by results.   


Hierarchy and management style: another point of conflict

While older employees expect respect from younger people, younger people often take a relaxed tone when dealing with all levels of the firm’s hierarchy. Younger employees are often said to be unprejudiced and open to new ways of working. The older ones, on the other hand, prize evolved structures and proven ways of working; they play by the “rules of the game”, which are derived from hierarchies. Instead, managers from e.g. Generation Y or Z prefer flat hierarchies. For them, results count more than a tight management style and prescribed structures. If young managers need to guide considerably older staff, a further risk of conflict arises since, under conventional social norms, greater age is synonymous with higher status.  


Communication: yet another point of conflict

A central problem is that of communication between the generations. Older people did not grow up with apps, chats and social media but, if they have done it at all, they have only familiarised themselves with them in their adulthood. So they would frequently rather telephone or prefer face-to-face meeting. Younger employees, by contrast, communicate more, more rapidly, and mainly online. But, irrespective of the communication channel used, their spheres and experience of life are so different that even the language with its content is difficult to understand for the other generation concerned. The feeling of not being understood leads to a situation in which they no longer speak to each other at all – bad conditions for a well-functioning, coordinated collaboration between colleagues.     


Seeing people with their individual needs

Anyone who has to solve a generational problem should see the employees concerned as individuals and not as representatives of one or another generation. All in all, the task is to perceive each employee with his individual experience of life and career, strengths, attitudes, needs (...). As an employer you should bear in mind that an older employee can no longer provide as much output or stand up to as much stress of a younger one. Employees shortly before retirement mostly have a different level of concentration, physical difficulties and a different tempo of work. If you exchange ideas and experience with your long-serving employees, you will ensure that they feel good at their workplace and continue to be well motivated and capable.     


Keeping an eye on communication

The key to well-functioning collaboration is communication. This should take place frequently and eye-to-eye – the basis being: mutual respect and valuation. Regular exchange between old and young encourages mutual understanding. Looking precisely for the opportunities afforded by generational differences is a proven benefit, for in this way your employees can tell each other of their expectations or needs and get to know each other better. In this way a collaboration can be built up which takes its rise from the individual strengths and needs of each member of staff – and your company will deliberately benefit from the resources of all your staff.


Averting conflicts: bringing the generations actively together

As an employer you should work jointly with your management level to prepare thoroughly for the ageing process among your employees, in order to avert generational conflicts – ideally with a plan of measures to counteract them in good time. The sort of measures suitable are those which actively bring the generations together. Encourage regular dialogue by establishing measures in your company, e.g. through


  • Organising communication forums, in which your employees themselves develop models for collaboration between the generations and set them going
  • Providing mentors who will support and advise younger employees; mentoring programmes
  • Founding an internal network of expertise in which older and younger employees provide their knowledge and support
  • Employing senior-citizen interns who, in their retirement, pass on their job and life experience to younger people.


Support in acute conflicts

If conflicts are already underway, here too the key to rectifying them lies in communication. For this purpose the best remedy must come from managers in your company who act as a linking intermediary between the generations. The manager should interest himself individually in each of the employees, listen to them, and be responsive in a differentiated way to their needs, situation and views. The important thing is to give each employee the feeling that he is unique and has particular strengths to contribute, on which the company builds. As an intermediary between the different positions, the manager will be able to influence the conduct of the conflicting parties in a positive way, perhaps by adapting the particular framework conditions in which the conflicting parties work. Each one of the employees must find a working environment in which he feels good, in which he can develop and contribute his strengths in the best possible way.   





Do you have any questions about dealing with conflicts in teams with an age mix in them? As a holistic HR service provider, we shall be glad to advise you.


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