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Magazine Issues » January-February 2020

Intergenerational teams: A different kind of ageing problem

Steve_ButlerWhen Steve Butler, CEO of Punter Southall Aspire (which owns Funds Europe), wrote a book about managing people from diverse age groups, we asked Christopher Walker, a former senior manager within the funds industry, to review it.

Forget the digital revolution. It’s now time for businesses to navigate the demographic one. Steve Butler’s intriguing new book explores the different challenges to be mastered in the 2020s, as the workforce becomes more diverse chronologically. He argues convincingly that businesses need to wake up to the untapped potential of professionals who may, in future, work well into their 60s, and beyond. The creative force generated by the mingling of different talent tribes can be phenomenal – but this larger age-span has its challenges. Each tribe has a different outlook and priorities.

Steve Butler writes regularly on management issues, and has definite ‘hands-on’ experience in his role as chief executive of financial adviser Punter Southall Aspire. Manage the Gap thus benefits from a combination of a rigorous intellectual framework, and numerous direct examples and case studies. Steve’s thesis blends two trends – the digital one we are well aware of, and the demographic one he opens our eyes to.

We all know we are living longer. In the last 60 years, life expectancy has gone from 72 to 83 for women, and from 66 to 79 for men. We are also working longer. In the last ten years, the percentage of 59 to 64-year-olds in employment has gone up 22%. For over-65-year-olds, it has doubled. This is not just because of population ageing, but also because it is getting harder and harder to retire and not work. The rise in the state retirement age, and the decline in the generosity of private pension provision, has ensured that. And both of these trends will get worse. No wonder in a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 54% of employees said they intend to work beyond 65. Steve introduces us to a new organisation – The Age of No Retirement.

But while this may be bad news for those who long for pipe and slippers, it is good news for employers. Firstly, this is because the younger demographic will decline in the 2020s. Nearly a quarter of the UK’s population were under 15 in 1975. By 2015, that figure had fallen to 18.8%. And younger people increasingly delay their entry into the workforce thanks to the massive expansion of university education and lifestyle change (a gap year, or three, before working).

Secondly, Steve argues, embracing an older workforce is a strength in itself. “A six-year study by the Centre for Ageing Better (2018) found that ‘when teams mix older and younger workers, productivity goes up and complex problems find more novel solutions’.” This is in line with the weight of evidence suggesting the strong advantages of diversity in a workforce beyond the usual arguments around gender and race. People with different perspectives are key. An age-diverse workforce benefits from “having different perspectives, knowledge-sharing, new ideas and improved problem-solving”. Innovation and better customer service thrive.

When Five Tribes go to work
But this broader chronological spectrum of talent brings challenges of its own. To master these, Steve argues business leaders should utilise the digital ‘Five Tribes’ analysis – or, rather, the last four of them. The Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), and Generations X (1965-80), Y (1980-1995) and Z (1995-present). The Ys, of course, are often called ‘millennials’.

This does have some pitfalls. As Steve himself admits, “people need (also) to be characterised by … their education, family or social class”. In my own coaching experience, I’ve found these to be much more important than birth date – family influence in particular. And at times there are echoes of David Attenborough in Steve’s analysis. “Millennials … need what is quaintly termed ’huddle space’: cubicles, meeting rooms, coffee shops or even a bench under a tree.”

But, as Steve argues, once you have applied a good dose of individual-tailoring to your approach, this identifying of generational tribes does lend insights. Take work ethics. Younger generations are often perceived by older ones to have a poor work ethic. But Steve argues it’s not poor - it’s different. In one of his ‘case studies’, he describes how a younger member of his tech team realised the business could work better with a new app, so he built it – entirely on his own time. For millennials, “this way of doing things is so common that there’s even a word for it … ‘skunk work’ (a term coined in World War II for informal group working). Likewise, Steve advises managers to embrace the younger generations’ ability to multi-task. He describes a “younger worker sitting at her desk, simultaneously working on her computer, sending a text message and watching a movie playing in the background”.

Steve’s real experience shines through in describing how managers must evolve, harnessing communication and feedback. They should be like the successful football manager who doesn’t field the 11 best players, but the 11 players who will play together best.

Steve also recommends structure and process changes. Mercer’s Global Talent Survey (2017) found more than half of UK workers wanted more fluid work options. This reflects the different structure we all now have in our careers/lives. Some want to start work later, take career breaks and sabbaticals, move from full-time to part-time, possibly care for children or parents. In this context, employers need to embrace fluidity, and remote working is a ‘no-brainer’. Employers should recognise this allows them to hold on to the best talent, facilitates the modern ‘agile working’ and actually lowers staff costs.

Traditional hierarchical structures may not work in this environment. As older workers stay on at the top, how do you stop the younger ones working their way up getting frustrated? Steve’s own solution was “to replace the board with seven operating committees, allowing a broader, more diverse group of individuals to become involved in the leadership and strategy of the business”. Brilliant.

Having managed age-diverse teams, I found much in this book that I recognised. Perhaps more importantly, I found much I didn’t. And that is why you should read it.

Manage the Gap – Achieving Success with Intergenerational Teams by Steve Butler. Published by Rethink Press, 2019, 216pp.

Christopher Walker is formerly a senior manager in the asset management industry and now a writer and coach.

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