Dr Eliza Filby is a writer, speaker, and researcher who specialises in what she calls ‘Generational Intelligence’ helping companies and services understand generational shifts within politics, society, and the workplace.
These are liveblogged notes from Eliza’s talk to NEXT Limited Edition in Hamburg on 24th September 2021.
We’ve changed over the last couple of years. For one, it wasn’t technology that changed us, but a pause. A pause of life. We’ve changed because of COVID.
It’s also changed our understanding of health: it’s become a more holistic understanding, of both physical and mental health. Staring at a green spot on endless Zoom meetings affected our mental health. But it also changed our relationship with time: control of time for work, with friends. People enjoyed the pause.
People also enjoyed their new relationship with their home: both the logistics of juggling work and education, but also just spending time there. We’re seeing a re-appreciation of the domestic, especially for the Millennials who haven’t really had the time or money to invest in the home before.
Companies also made the switch to digital relatively quickly and easily. For a long time, remote working had been a challenge or completely closed down in some companies. And then it happened basically overnight. How do we maintain that flexibility, and still regain what was lost in the early days of the pandemic?
Navigating the Hybrid Future
Hybrid working is going to be about the office, but it’s also going to be about technology — and about how you manage people. We’ve seen into people’s homes, we’ve seen their dogs and their washing. We’ve seen their humanity. We shouldn’t lose that.
Not only that, but we’ve been through a pandemic of an age-discriminate disease. Your age really determined your experience of the pandemic. And age also defines your place or seniority in the workplace. Different generations can bring different experiences and roles to the workplace:
The Baby Boomers
These were the vulnerable generation during the pandemic — but they are still very much in the workplaces. They came of age during the 60s and 70s and were the benefactors of the social reforms of those decades, and the economic boom of the 80s. They’re still in positions of power.
This is the ignored generation. They were initially known as the “baby bust” generation. There aren’t as many of them as the baby boomers, and so don’t wield as much economic and political power. But they’re a pioneer generation: they were the generation where women started to outnumber men at university — and to enter the workplace in significant numbers. They then started the discussion about work/life balance.
They are the first generation to experience the personal technology, like Walkmen, and the Blackberry. And they were the globalised generation, gaining a wider perspective through both travel and the World Wide Web.
The Millenials are the best-educated generation — and they were promised a stable career after university. Then they entered the workplace during a global financial crisis, and they found that promise broken. Higher education has become more universal — but less valuable. They’re also the smartphone generation. Yes, it turned us all into selfie-loving narcissists. But it also created fluidity between our personal and work life. They check their work emails, and then they book tickets for a gig.
And they’re not young anymore. The majority didn’t experience the pandemic in flat-shares with their friends, but in apartments — with children. They’re hitting middle age.
Many of them have relied on parents for childcare, and deferred the big expenditures of life, like homes and cars. They’ve been experience consumers, rather than asset acquirers.
Gen Z make millennials feel that they are no longer young. They are an alien species. They don’t remember the 20th century. This is the generation who has no living memory of life before the internet, before the mobile phone or 9/11. But that period of disruption has really impacted them. They’ve grown up in a very politicised time, because of social media, Brexit, populism and the rise of China. And, of course, the climate crisis and COVID. They’ve been the most impacted by the pandemic, through restrictions on their education and their life experience.
They’ve had two years of their youth taken away from them.
Four generations at work
These are the four generations in your workplace now. They’ve all experienced it differently:
- The Boomers have worked at home, a comfortable home, with a partner who could make them lunch.
- Gen X were squeezed between looking after their children and their parents, and often found themselves working from the car, as it was the only quiet place they could find.
- Millennials suddenly found themselves without the assistance of their parents and their nurseries — but they enjoyed the lack of a commute, and the extra time with their families.
- But Gen Z were the ones who were alone, stuck in shared accommodation, staring at a green dot, rather than interacting with people.
We’re seeing a real shift in how each group of people are living their lives — and how work will be integrated into it.
Rethinking the life journey
The old model of education to work (often women at home and men at work) to retirement is broken. The Boomers will be the last to experience that.
We’re moving into a multi-stage life. We’re living longer — but delaying becoming adults. Likewise, we’re in education longer, and we’re waiting for marriage until we’re in our 30s. People are having children later and over a shorter period of time.
Retraining and upskilling will be a big part of the future career. Who pays for that? The person, the employer, or the state?
We have couples juggling two careers, and two children. The rise of the working female means we need the normalisation of the domestic male. We need to stop talking about maternity leave and paternity leave and think about times when we step back to care for children. But we also need to think about time to care for parents. Daughters, in particular, are at risk of a double penalty to their careers, from pregnancy and from caring for their parents.
People are less likely to retire so much as gradually slip out of the workplace, by slowing their work activity. Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to retire at 80 than 65.
The New Normal for Hybrid Work
These are the two things we’ll need to navigate the hybrid era.
Multi-generational workforces are one of the biggest challenges we face. We need to be creating an inclusive culture that suits all generations, not just over-catering to the young. We need to recognise that managers’ role is to be a bridge across the generations. So often this communication is patronising: the young person accuses the old of being stuck in their ways, the old accuses the young of being naive. But we’re all a consequence of our circumstances.
For Gen Z, the smartphone is not technology, any more than the kettle is for Boomers. We need to help each generation understand each other — and managers can aid that. Reverse mentoring, workshops and collaboration can all help. We need to listen to youth and experience. Hybrid working is likely to increase the generation gap.
How well do you know your workers? Do you know their parents? Do you know where they went to university? Do you know what family pressures they’re living under? We need to connect with each other and find out what’s happening in people’s lives.
People don’t want diktats about when they come into the office: they want bespoke flexibility. And you can only provide that if you really understand what’s happening in people’s lives. This is particularly true of your young people. It’s often underestimated how much today’s young people value their families. A poll in Germany suggested that Gen Z would go to their Mum and Dad for advice first. We’re seeing the integration of Mum and Dad into the workplace. Parents are to be as important and to be considered as children or spouses.
We need a more holistic approach to humanity in the workplace, and this can only be done in a nurturing, natural way.