The Myths and Realities of Generational Diversity

In Dr Michelle Dickinson’s office at the University of Auckland, an older colleague will email her formally, then print the email and then walk it to her office in case it hadn’t come through – at the same time her students will simply text her: “Oi miss, what is the answer to question 7?”

With technology and social norms moving ever more rapidly, and people staying in the workforce for longer, by 2020 it won’t be unusual to see as many as five diverse generations working together – each with different outlooks, aspirations, values, skillsets and ways of getting things done.

Infographic from UNC Kenan Flagler Business School

Infographic from UNC Kenan Flagler Business School

But how different are they really? And are there any changes we need to make to how we run our workforce, to attain the most productive workforce we can?

Global Women hosted a panel at CANZ on February 2 facilitated by researcher and teacher Dr Michelle Dickinson a.k.a Nanogirl, to explore how different the generations really are and to look at what is needed to bridge the generation gap. Panellists were Whai Rawa Limited Board Director, Rangimarie Hunia, Chairperson of Alliance Health Plus Trust, Ulu Aiono Chairperson of Environment Canterbury, Dame Margaret Bazley, and Manager of Customer Voice Westpac NZ, Hamish Wood.

Rangimarie Hunia – Gen X

Rangimarie sits on the board of Ngati Whatua, and her role is to develop a 100 year plan for the iwi.

She says every generation before and after her is different – and always have been – because of the events that have shaped them. Leading them in the case of running an iwi organisation requires a longterm, holistic approach.

“I think my view on managing generational diversity comes down to two things: how my people view the world, and how you apply that in business. But I’ve never seen intergenerational diversity as an issue. It’s a privilege, working out how to lead something today to be in place tomorrow. It’s an obligation, something you can contribute to beyond yourself.

“My generation? I’m 39, was raised in Orakei, and one thing I have seen in my lifetime is New Zealand has had two female prime ministers. It’s not just your peers in your generation that shape you, it’s what you’ve seen in your country in your lifetime. So it’s normal for me that women are leaders – Helen Clark spent three terms as Prime Minister. I’ve also seen strong revitalisation of Maori Culture and heritage.

“My parents were traditionalists, and their generation focused on education. They were teachers and Maori academics. My generation is all about commerce and law – and we’ve seen a huge shift in how we lead.”

So how is it that you prepare resources for the next generation?

“The next generation – my kids, millenials – they’re creative. Millennials require skills and expertise and thoughts and behaviour that is changing constantly with the change in technology, but the big problem is many are not getting all this, in particular decile one and two schools. We need to invest in them. And that’s the biggest challenge for now.”

Dame Margaret Bazley – Traditionalist

“I want to make it clear that I don’t see myself as a traditionalist!” – Dame Margaret is 78 years old and still working – at Environment Canterbury she has in fact congratulated various people who have completed 50 years of work.

Dame Margaret sees the challenge with generation diversity is to keep people engaged in the workforce, when they’re battling today’s impractical expectation that employees must work full time – this affects older people and young mothers in particular.

“In New Zealand we have a challenge on how to keep small towns vibrant, to support the migrant workforce coming in because those populations are aging – how do we get people to remain in those workforces and for even longer than they are? [Ed – for more on this, see blog on Shamubeel Eaqub’s talk]

“In my view, we are already – and always have been – a multigenerational workforce. In my early career, people were promoted on seniority only and had permanent appointment. So there were always lots of older people in the workforce at the top levels. In the 1980s, I was made CEO of Ministry of Transport which looked after the Meteorological Service. In the Meteorological service in particular, there wasn’t much flexibility in working style or diversity at the top – the board rooms were full of grey haired men who planned to stay 40 years in order to receive their superannuation.

“In the 1980s there was a smaller group of younger people who wanted to turn it around, and so we had reforms driven by the Lange government which removed permanent employment from Public Service. We started to get a more a mixed workforce in Public Service, and experienced a major push in equality in public service and part time work.

“But a push for reform happens periodically – as a society we have to stop and reassess where we are going. So it’s nothing new. But the issue us, in the last 30 years we have lost our way on part time work, and equality in the workplace. This is important if we’re going to realise the maximum potential of a multigenerational workplace.

“If we did address these issues, it would benefit my generation (more balance in our lives) and younger people too, such as women coming back from parental leave. So how do we get the structure of the workplace to embrace the needs of the workforce? I think the block to this happening is managers who expect women who have returned from parental leave to work full time. We need a fresh look at the way we organise work.”

Hamish Wood – Millennial

Hamish Wood is in complete agreeance with the millennial stereotype.

“I quite like the stereotype – apart from the lazy bit – I like to call it looking for the easy way, being efficient!”

Challenges in the workplace that Hamish sees between the generations:

Communication. Email is snailmail. Millenials want information fast – via instant messenger or text, for example – and we love connecting through devices. We love connecting with people full stop, and love using social media to do this.

Authenticity. “It’s very important to be authentic – we can smell inauthenticity quickly. Don’t be scared to get to the point, and be direct, because often what you mean isn’t what is heard. But don’t patronise us.”

Millennials have a big focus on higher purpose, more so than profits or KPIs. “For example, I’m part of a global LGBTI network, and last year we released a video called ‘It gets better’ (about being gay today, that it gets better) with other Westpac employees. For our generation, everyone is equal in our eyes. But this is a challenge for employers, making sure there is a higher purpose in an employees’ role. At Westpac, for example, that may be something like raising money for Westpac Rescue Helicopter, which I do as part of my role.”

Feedback. “We love feedback. I need it so desperately that I have had to learn to give myself feedback at the end of the day. We want to know if we are on track, that we are developing leadership skills to get into senior positions.” (Michelle Dickinson pointed out a survey that showed 42 percent of millennials need weekly feedback, twice the rate of other generations)

Transience. “We move around a lot. I’m different in that I’ve now had four years at Westpac – most people my age would go for one or two years. Although, I’ve been promoted within Westpac to different roles so it takes care of that.”

Having a voice despite lower rank: “There’s still a blockage at the boardroom level – how can we give millennials a voice in that forum? For example, we are an amazing resource for suggestions on digital, and it adds the diversity of voices in the board room. Perhaps we need to create mentor programmes so that these views are fed to the board and back.”

Ulu Aiono – Boomer

Ulu doesn’t agree with the stereotypical classifications in the diagram and wouldn’t use this to manage his workforce – he himself bucks his generation’s trend with a hugely technology-focused career.

“By a stroke of luck in 1979 I found I was very good at developing software. During an Otago University term two holiday in Dunedin I saw a complicated-looking device in an electronics store shop window. It was a programmable Hewlett Packard calculator. One of the first in the country. The store allowed me to borrow the HP calculator so I took it home. To my surprise I found that I understood the calculator’s programming language with no prior experience. So I stayed up that night and wrote a share buying/selling software system. I was prepping for med school intermediate at the time but I changed my degree course to Computer Science. I started my own company in 1983 and in 1988 I was hired by Australasia’s premier recruitment company, Morgan & Banks to design a software system that would pull out skills from CVs. From that work for Morgan & Banks I learned the importance of meeting people face to face when recruiting. I’ve interviewed 6000-7000 people to build my business over 32 years. So I don’t agree with this diagram of generational diversity (1900 Traditionalist; 1946 Baby Boomer; 1965 Gen X etc),” he says.

He says humanity doesn’t present itself like this diagram – it’s much more complex and layered – and therefore we can’t put people into these boxes, it’s more important to manage and lead the employee as a unique individual.

“Much more useful as an indicator or predictor of generational behaviour (and diversity) is: capital formation; availability of credit and its consumption; human relationships and respect for authority. This means we have to consider history and human behaviour. Some people discredit Professor Skinner’s work. But it is useful and predictive. This is the theory of operant conditioning. There are four causes of human behaviour: positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement, and punishment. If we can understand and observe how these causes create and modify people’s behaviours in their professional and personal environments then we are much better able and informed (than through the stereotypical Traditional, Gen X etc classifications) to deal with behavioural and generational diversity. In addition, there’s also capital formation and respect for authority (not patriarchal, or government etc). In my view, capital formation and growing respect for authority started in 1760 with the industrial revolution – which is when entrepreneurs and business people started to put together their capital so as to enlarge the production facilities for capital goods and consumer goods. Today we live in a time when cyber technology and communications technology is leading worldwide growth. Today we are living with the effects of that capital formation (since the Industrial Revolution) and our views of authority – and everyone is different. (Human relationships and the four cause of behaviours are mediated by technology and other channels – not through the past’s authority structures.)”


Rangimarie says language acquisition will be huge – two languages minimum – because with other languages comes respect for other people, and the understanding that we’re global. Also a caring attitude towards the environment and the people that come here to live. “Diversity is a lifestyle and a way of being, and it needs to be inherent in the next generation.”

Ulu says there is no point in having classifications if you can’t use those classifications to predict the next generation. But if you understand the flow of capital, you can predict the next skills needed.

“The Maori economy has grown from $1 billion in value of gross settlements of land and cash to more than $40 billion over 22-23 years since the then National Government issued Sir Doug Graham with his warrant to begin Treaty negotiations. This is unique in New Zealand, apart from the likes of Mr Graeme Hart. You can’t say the same about the other minorities in New Zealand for example Pasifika. For those minorities and ethnicities, there is no history of a treaty and they therefore have to rely on intermarriage and growing their middle class, using business and employment to grow their capital.“

Dame Margaret says all of us must be responsible for the upcoming generation. “Most of all, we must be concerned about children of migrants, and about young women who have to work full time to pay the mortgage but without getting good care for their children.”

Mary Kinsella of Hays, who was in the audience at the event, made the point that there is a lot of focus on the next generation, but we must also look back as well as forward. Know the values system of the generation before you.