Generational differences in the workplace — is it the green age?

Aerial view of four generations of phones representing generational divides.

Key takeaways

  • “Old school thinking” attitudes towards technology can be a major barrier to implementing virtual ways of working in to the workplace.
  • Understanding where these issues may present themselves within the business, and addressing them through education or training, is the key to moving forward.
  • Whilst sustainability is important to millennials, virtual training needs to offer more than sustainability.
  • To appeal to the younger generation, virtual training needs to capitalise in the areas where F2F training cannot.

Virtual training has huge scope to allow companies to meet their sustainability targets. But there are still obstacles within the workplace that are preventing it reaching it’s full potential. Among others, generational differences within the workplace mean there are a variety of attitudes towards virtual training- some of these can be a major barrier to it’s adoption and implementation.

What are the generational differences in the workplace?

Looking at how generational differences can impact an organisation’s ability to implement sustainable work models starts with identifying what generational divides there are. Workplaces are now more diverse than ever- and while this has many positive outcomes, the consequence can be huge generational differences within organisations. “Digital nomads” and “digital immigrants” are terms first coined by Marc Prensky, American writer and speaker, in 2001, and can be used to categorise these differences. Digital immigrants are typically include:

  • Silent Traditionalists born between 1925–1945
  • Baby Boomers born between 1945–1965
  • Gen X born between 1965–1980

In contrast digital nomads are those born after 1980, and include millennials, gen Z and gen Alpha.

  • Millennials born between 1980–1995
  • Gen Z born between 1995–2010
  • Gen Alpha born 2010 to the present day

Understanding the divide

The generational differences between the “nomads” and the “immigrants” can best be understood like a language barrier- we all understand what it is like to feel that everyone around us is speaking a foreign language, and we are completely out of our depths!

To the digital nomads, who have grown up in a world that is tech focused, technology is their first language. It is what comes naturally to them, and would be their first point of call.

In contrast, the digital immigrants have grown up learning to speak a different language, one that is focused around face to face interactions, in person communication, and physical copies of reports, data etc. Technology is not their first language. In fact, it is completely foreign to them! They have had to adapt and learn this new language to keep up with modern society, but for most, it is not first nature.

Prensky describes digital immigrants as retaining a “digital accent”. They retain a preference to their first language, that of the world before technology. This may be evident in things like printing off emails, preferring paper copies to digital, to turning to the internet second for information, or a general distrust of new technologies.

How does this impact sustainability targets for organisations?

Digital immigrants tend to be characterised in to three groups: avoiders (who prefer a technology free lifestyle), reluctant adopters (who accept technology but feel it is intuitive and hard to use), and enthusiastic adopters (who are fast learners and embrace and value technology). They share common characteristics, such as preferring to talk on the phone or in person, rely on traditional ways of working, or favoring physical work spaces. They like a logical and linear process of discovery when learning.

These generational differences have wide ranging impacts throughout the workplace, especially when it comes to change.

In fact, Prensky says that digital immigrants may also project their beliefs on to those around them- believing that if they are true to themselves, they must be true for others. A manager may not believe team members can interact properly over Zoom, because he himself can’t. This old school thinking can have wide reaching consequences throughout the whole team, and may translate to a workplace that is adverse to change. We all know that going virtual can have a huge impact on sustainability targets for organisations- in fact the UN believes that 14 of it’s 17 sustainable development goals can be solved or advanced through virtual work. Yet if a large group of the workforce is resisting this transition- it can halt progress. Even if the majority or the workplace is eager to change, the beliefs of a few individuals may hold the whole team back.

Demand for change

Yet having generational differences within the workplace can also be a huge positive- even acting as a catalyst for change. Since the pandemic, it has become apparent that the younger generation want a focus on wellbeing and flexibility within the workplace.  A study showed that in 2022 there was a 77% increase in engagement among Gen Z when a company post on LinkedIn mentioned flexibility. In contrast there was a  31% reduction among baby boomers. And 66% of gen Z say they would  like more investment in mental health in the workplace, compared to only 31% of baby boomers.  The millennials and Gen Z have seen generations burn out before them, and they don’t want this for themselves. There is a demand for better ways of working and  learning that can meet their needs. And who blames them? For many working from home during the pandemic highlighted the many benefits of remote working. Where before employees may have stuck rigidly to the in-office, 9-5 way of working, people are starting to realise there are better options.  As such, there is increasing scope for virtual training methods to meet this demand, providing a range of benefits to employees that they would not get from F2F.

Virtual training has to offer more than sustainability.

Corporate travel offers the opportunity to socialise, have new experiences, and see the world. Attending a meeting in Dubai seems far more exciting than attending in the office next door! Whilst this is true for most people, millennials and GenZ have missed out on the adventure and experience travel offers due to Covid.   As though to make up for lost time, these generations are more eager than ever to travel, with 70% of millennials say the desire to travel is a primary reason to work, and the  Deloitte global millennial survey revealing that seeing the world/ travelling ranked as the number one aspiration for these generations, outranking things such as “being wealthy”, “buying home” etc.

With increasing time spent on social media , the younger generations can access the world from their phone. Where previously they may have been happy staying at home, social media widens their horizons, and they are hungry for the experiences they see on their screen. In fact, data suggests that younger generations (in this case those aged 40 and below) are the products of globalisation- identifying as being part of the world, rather than their own nations or region. This desire to experience the world may even supersede their sustainability ideals- and can pose a huge challenge when it comes to implementing virtual training as part of an organisation’s sustainability strategy. For many, the associated benefits of increased sustainability is not enough – it does not replace the experiences they may have missed from travel. Virtual training has to capitalise on the areas where travel can’t, providing benefits that would never have been gained by getting on a flight.

Looking for solutions

Perhaps the solution comes from looking what sustainability means for these generations. We know younger generations are passionate about climate change, with 9 in 10 making an effort to protect the environment, and almost half saying they have put pressure on their organisation to take action. However research shows they want more investment in everyday, visible actions such as banning single use plastic, offering sustainability-oriented employee benefits etc. Background commitments, such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and engaging in public policy ranked much lower in their priorities.  While virtual meets many sustainability goals – it doesn’t offer flashy headlines, or have the instant appeal of trendy solutions such a fleet of electric bikes for all employees, or new sustainable branding headlines. The younger generation want their impact to be tangible, and immediate. If it is possible to harness this desire for change, and use it to promote greener, virtual methods in to the workplace, generational differences towards the tech could be overcome.

Final thoughts

Generational differences mean that there is a myriad of different attitudes to consider when implementing more virtual ways of working, and this can pose a challenge. Identifying, and addressing these, is the key to moving forward.

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