What Does Diversity Mean to Different Generations?
| By Sue Bryant
The makeup of the workplace today is very different to that of the past in terms of gender, ethnicity, attitude and behavior. The older generation can be credited with ushering in diversity. But what diversity actually means has changed – and will most likely continue to evolve as the last baby boomers retire and Generation Z enters the workforce.
For companies to function effectively, and happily, it is essential for each of the four generations currently in employment to understand how others perceive diversity – from the early days of gender and race relations to the newer concept of diversity being more about attitude, values and beliefs.
Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and Generation X (born 1965 to 1984)
As earlier boomers reached the height of their careers, diversity and inclusion began to be talked about in the workplace. This was the first generation that had to practice compliance in business. To this segment, the concept is more about integrating people of different gender, faith, ethnicity and physical ability into the workplace. Boomers are more likely to see diversity as a reputational issue for their workplace, or a moral and legal imperative, than a concept that makes the workplace more pleasant.
The earlier members of this cohort were brought up to respect authority, to conform and to demonstrate loyalty to their company. Generation Xers, who followed them, are more independent, less conformist, more tech-savvy and more likely to see themselves as entrepreneurs, having grown up with the belief that they can achieve anything. But they’re also known as a selfish generation, obsessed with their own career progression and with personal growth.
Boomers in the workplace need to understand that to younger Gen Xers and millennials, today’s most influential consumers and the bulk of the workforce, diversity means being free to express oneself and be listened to, and extends far beyond merely achieving compliance. Companies that lack this ‘cognitive diversity’ could find it difficult to hold on to their millennial employees.
Gen Xers – manager now in their 50s – may think they’re embracing diversity but it never hurts to perform a quick audit. How many diversity candidates apply for jobs with your company? Is the number proportionate with the number that are hired? Look, too, at your recruitment panels and your board. Do they all comprise middle-aged white men? Today, this is not giving the right message.
Millennials (born early to mid-1980s to 1996)
To millennials, or Generation Y, diversity is a wider concept than the ideas of gender, ethnicity, faith, physical ability and age. Physical diversity is important to them, of course; in a 2016 study by Weber Shandwick, KRC Research and the Institute of Public Relations, 47% of millennials said diversity and inclusion was important when looking for a new job, versus 33% of Generation X-ers and 37% of boomers. But essentially, diversity to this cohort is more about considering others’ experiences, identities and opinions – cognitive diversity, in other words. Millennials have been proven in surveys to favor companies where communication is open and team members are not afraid to voice ideas, however unorthodox. They don’t downplay their differences but rather, celebrate them. Part of cognitive diversity is a collaborative environment, with transparent and communicative leadership, a strong focus on teamwork and recognition of individual achievements.
Millennials have grown up in a connected world, which they see as a small and manageable place, thanks to technology. They are used to documenting their lives on social media and as such, have high expectations of a company’s social media policy and presence, and the diversity this represents.
Generation Z (born 1997 onwards)
This generation is just entering the workforce, as new graduates or interns. They are the first generation to have spent their whole lives in the digital age. Because of this, their attention span has been proven to be shorter and their focus less intense – but their ability to multitask is impressive. Because they have grown up with technology, they feel even more global in their thinking and interactions than millennials. They are coming of age in an era where freedom of expression is more important than ever and there are more ways to self-identify than their parents could ever have imagined.
Generation Z wants acceptance of this diversity, as well as flexible working, much of it based online. To them, in the UK and North America, at least, freelancing and entrepreneurship are far more appealing than the idea of a nine-to-five office job. They know that today, job security is a rare phenomenon. They want experiences, constant variety, new challenges and they want instant results. They will not be loyal to brands or employers whom they feel don’t appreciate them. Recruiting this generation is not so much about promising a diverse workplace – to them, this is a given. It’s about tolerance, flexibility, choice and career progression – but not necessarily in a linear fashion.