Bridging tech’s generation gap

A conversation with workforce innovation leader Sophie Wade

generation gap in tech

Age may only be a number, but it’s one that is changing rapidly across dozens of industries—and in the tech sector especially. Last year, Millennials became the largest segment of the U.S. workforce for the first time, surpassing Baby Boomers and Gen X.

At Facebook and Google, the median age of an employee is 28 and 30 respectively. Older workers, meanwhile, are staying on the job longer than ever before. One in four U.S. workers will be 55 or older by 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

With more generations in the workforce each year, new strategies are required to manage a more diverse talent pool, says Sophie Wade, workforce innovation expert and author of “Embracing Progress: Next Steps for the Future of Work.” In an interview with Workflow, Wade discussed the challenges and opportunities facing CIOs and CHROs seeking to blend the skills of an age-diverse workforce.

What’s different about the multigenerational workforce of today compared to, say, 10 or even five years ago?

Today we have many more Millennials rising up through the ranks and coming into leadership positions. That means they have greater weight in deciding how stuff gets done. We also have Gen Z—born between 1995 and 2015—coming into the workforce and digital is integrated into their lives.

We are now interconnected and have extraordinary mobile computer power. Millennials and Gen Z are bringing new perspectives and looking to work in new ways using these technologies. They’re trying to figure out how to work effectively within organizational structures created for different circumstances by the generations that came before them.

A recent Deloitte survey found that 61% of business leaders in the United States see older workers as a “competitive disadvantage.” Given the explosion of AI and automation, are they wrong?

Nobody’s right or wrong, but they might be misguided. The world that Millennials are assuming leadership roles in was designed with different objectives and principles by older generations who have great experience and expertise in it, but the world is changing.

Today, it’s like the blind leading the blind. We have younger people who don’t yet have enough business experience to realize the full potential of technology, and older leaders who have much more experience but many who don’t yet grasp the dynamics of a rapidly changing workplace.

The most powerful way forward is a combination. Technological advances have blurred the boundaries of work hours, locations, and processes that Baby Boomers and Gen X are accustomed to. In this more fluid work environment, many Millennials and Gen Zs struggle to channel their energies, and older generations can help them organize and focus their work. Meantime, younger generations can help older workers understand and use powerful new digital tools to be effective in today’s faster-paced work environment.

As a CIO, how can I help generationally diverse teams work together more effectively?

We need empathic leadership. Empathy is about trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and feel what they are going through. Mentoring is one way to build important relationships to support that. When you pair an older worker with a younger one, they get to know and understand each other, they’re able to empathize with each other better, and communicate and collaborate better.

That’s critically important because we’re moving at a much faster pace. We’re moving away from routine workflows to much more project-based work. We used to have big software releases every two to three years, right? Now updates can happen monthly, weekly or even daily. Work is less predictable; it’s more iterative. We’re not forecasting five years out in many situations. We can still project a longer-term vision, but work projects are much shorter term now.

If you could either retrain an older worker or hire a younger worker who has the digital skill set needed for the job, what would you do?

Retraining the older worker would be the way to go. As we shift toward a more project-based approach to work, you need to think about all the skills you need, not just tech skills, like business judgment and critical thinking.

A lot of Boomers and Gen Xers have amazing expertise and incredibly valuable input to bring to the table. At the same time, they need to develop new skills. Think about the technology we’re using now to communicate, to acquire knowledge and disseminate it. Whatever job you have, the way you’re completing tasks and sharing your work has changed enormously over the last five years and continues to change. The skills we need constantly have to be upgraded, no matter what your age is.