Douglas Adams, he of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote a story about an Electric Monk. You could pay this monk to believe things for you, just in case you were too busy. The Monk had the very useful ability of being able to believe two contradictory arguments at exactly the same time. I only mention this as, after reading a series of opinion pieces recently, I may be in need of his services.
The first piece was a predictable re-hash of the ‘everyone is getting younger’ theme. The slight difference was the point that Gen Z is the first group entering the workforce who are ‘internet native.’ I took that to mean that they were fluent with apps, social media and the like. Although, to my crusty old head, that simply means they can waste hours playing candy crush and taking hundreds of pouting selfies to post on FaceHub or InstaBook or something.
My cynical sarcasm aside, it is interesting to consider that the new generation also have very different expectations of any company they work for. They expect companies to be much more socially responsible and engaged with local communities, and they are having a say in how their work product is used. I note growing disquiet within the staff at the large tech companies over whether or not they should be using their tech in surveillance programs or weapon systems.
The second piece took exactly the opposite view. It was looking at how recent changes in the pension ages across the world results in people working longer and how this will push the average age of companies higher and higher. It also explored how the perspective of the older worker is very different from their younger counterpart. It appears the older generation is more concerned with job security, benefit packages, privacy in the office and the like. Apparently, they don’t care if there are slides. Regular social events feel like overtime and they prefer meeting rooms to have proper chairs.
So, how are we meant to be creating workplaces now…? If we build dynamic, flexible and inspiring offices with a matching culture, do we alienate the older worker? Let’s face it, after the age of around 25 there is simply no elegant way of getting out of a bean bag, so if your space is a little too dynamic, it may well do so. But does that mean if we build simple, comfortable and functional offices which scare off the younger generation? The truth, I think, is that we have always had a mix of ages in business, even in the world of tech.
Businesses grow and evolve, young, tech savvy youth will start businesses and they will grow and be full of young dynamic people. They will work all hours, drink beer together, revel in edgy office space and enjoy the slight discomfort of their clients as they sit on old fruit boxes around an upturned cable drum in a meeting pod. One day, they may even be so successful they IPO and then things get complicated. Experienced managers are brought in who are older than the average, then the original team starts to get older and before you know it, the founders look (gasp!) old.
The reverse also happens in established businesses. Imagine the banks with hundreds of years of tradition behind them suddenly realising that they need to hire lots of young computer scientists to ensure they can offer the kind of online banking we all expect. Those guys don’t wear a suit and tie, nor do they like to work in a stuffy, old school hierarchical environment. I have a delightful mental image of an old school facility manager in discussion with one of the new computer guys. He looks puzzled as if someone just tried to explain String Theory to him and he says, ‘let me just be certain I understand you.’ He takes a deep breath and continues in an incredulous tone, ‘you want a bean bag in the conference room?’
So its time we stopped assuming that age is an issue in workplace. Good design is good design and it is appreciated by all generations. So let’s not worry if our populations are ageing or getting younger. Let’s build spaces that meet all the needs and don’t force anyone into sitting on a bean bag if they don’t want to. The younger set have their view, the older worker has theirs…
Personally, I think it’s the middle agers we need to be listening to.