Is there an age-related disconnect in our workplaces?

It's interesting to examine how diverse perceptions of many minds fit into the modern matrix of workflows, and if ‘generation gap’ is now a bigger issue than ever before in the cubicle world

By Asha Iyer

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Published: Sun 12 Nov 2023, 4:44 PM

Last updated: Sun 12 Nov 2023, 4:45 PM

Even as debates over a 70-hour workweek continue unabated in India, I recall a report in this newspaper about the possibility of five generations working together in the UAE, sharing ethos and traditions that could be as different as chalk, cheese and chamomile. Although the report mentions the likelihood of this combination happening in family-run businesses, the scenario is not a rarity in current corporate milieus given that retirement now has no age criteria. If not five, there are at least three generations spanning several decades sharing workspaces and many other professional credos. It would be interesting to examine how diverse perceptions of many minds fit into the modern matrix of workflows, and if ‘generation gap’ is now a bigger issue than ever before in the cubicle world.

Differences between generations are perennial, be it in domestic settings or in the professional sphere. The way human thought evolves is reflected through new perspectives and the two need not share common tenets. Yet, diversity of age ranges in workplaces and the challenges it throws at the players involved is of late becoming a frequent subject of professional conversations.

“It is not the work that drains; it is people management, especially tackling the new generation, that makes work tedious,” a friend who is also a senior finance manager recently said. The refrain is only getting louder, raising a moot question – are differences getting starker and the silent feud caused by them becoming a norm in a multi-gen work environment? Is the issue now a hot potato that no one knows how to handle and hence gets quietly passed over?

That such a situation of mismatch exists is undoubted. There are undercurrents of tension caused by the clash between the instinctive nature of the new gen and the traditional, linear styles of an older tribe, viz. Baby Boomers and Gen X. It would be wrong to blame any one side for the uneasy calm that prevails in many set-ups. The freshness that newbies bring in is invaluable, but so is the experience that the old-timers profess. The new-age approaches and digital skills the former introduce in a time-worn system are vital for growth but so are the ageless wisdom of those who have been through effective processes.

Where then is the flashpoint? In the clash of their perspectives, goals and values, perhaps. And also, in the way the two ‘squads’ perceive each other, more as adversaries than as collaborators working towards a common aim. There might be deep mistrust and misconceptions lurking on either side. For the youngsters, the experience of the senescent superior seems dated and irrelevant; for those who are over the hill, the impulsive manner of the new gen translates as recklessness. Material motivations spur the young, whereas the old thrive on integrity and commitment. While quick leaps and short-cuts take the former towards their dreams, the latter still swear by hard work and reliable systems. Both may be right in their own ways in staking a claim to the future, but staying at loggerheads hardly helps get work done in a setting where both heads and hearts must be in tandem.

There are ways to bridge these differences and nothing works as well as meaningful conversations. The irony is, having a conversation itself is hard given how easily a discussion is hijacked by trivia and an unspoken urge to resist change. When the agenda is not brought down to the single word, “resolution”, conversations tend to become tacky and self-serving.

Mentoring is a word that the young have begun to reject, especially in the context of ‘self-improvement’ as a personal and professional goal. With modern technology offering every skill they need to survive and beat competition, grooming and guidance are often dismissed as superfluous. Parallelly, the old guard considers itself the keepers of old reason and fails to learn the new tricks from the freshers. There is apparently a lack of wilful ‘give and take’ of knowledge and this may be the biggest cause of workplace woes in modern times.

Conflict is often a fallout of competition for clout or power. As we have seen time and again, and yet failed to realise, duels and dogfights bring no lasting solutions. Everyone — age and status notwithstanding — craves to be recognised and respected. There will be varied preferences — as varied as there are people — but they must not precede the common purpose or goal to succeed as individuals and organisations.

It is difficult to iron out fundamental differences in perceptions, but finding ways to successfully coexist with our differences without letting our vanity hamper common growth is the only way to make sure AI doesn’t replace us one day. Which they very well may, because unlike humans, AI is sans ego, and it has only one objective — to deliver.

(Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author and children’s writing coach)

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