Lifelong learning: Generations need to work together better for it to succeed

Future workplaces will have multiple generations working together.

If the Government wants to make a success of lifelong learning, it first must address the generation question, claims Chris Jones, chief executive of The City & Guilds Group.

“Changing labour markets will mean that re-training is vital,” said chancellor Philip Hammond when he delivered the Budget in March.

What followed was a £40 million promised investment in lifelong learning pilots, and so far, unlike some of the other pledges in that budget, he has not changed his mind.

Nobody reading this would doubt the importance of training and skills development in ensuring a productive and capable workforce – and yet successive governments have neglected this important area.

So well done to Philip Hammond for recognising the role of training in preparing for the workforce of tomorrow.

Future challenges

We all know that the future workplace will look and run very differently to today.

While I’m sure some of the most alarming predictions will be unfounded – I certainly don’t think the robots will make us all completely redundant – there’s no doubt that we face huge challenges from trends including automation and remote working, not to mention widening skills gaps.

My fear, though, is that one trend is being overlooked – the generation issue.

More specifically, we’re overlooking the fact that tomorrow’s workplace will see grandchildren working with grandparents, as five generations pursue their careers simultaneously.

Conscious of this pressing issue, The City & Guilds Group asked baby boomers and millennials about their attitudes to each other in the workplace, and their views on professional development.

Worryingly, we found that three-fifths of older workers believe younger colleagues have a poor perception of them, while almost half of younger workers worry older colleagues view them negatively, and just over half (57%) feel that older people are offered better pay and opportunities.

In addition to this, more than two-fifths of baby boomers believe that millennials are less productive, while just under one-third (30%) of millennials think baby boomers’ skills are not relevant for tomorrow’s workplace.

Overall, seven in 10 of those we asked said they think a multi-generational workforce generates competitiveness between employees.

Busting myths

Competitiveness can be helpful – it can spur people on to boost their skills to become more creative, effective and efficient employees. But it can also sow discontent and resentment.

This is problematic. While nearly four in 10 millennials we spoke to said they preferred to work with people their age, the reality is that few will get that choice – nor should they cut themselves off from learning from the experience and wisdom of older generations.

It’s time for businesses to step in to ensure that misconceptions around competence, pay and value to the business do not undermine productivity and innovation.

And that’s where lifelong learning comes in. With the Government enthused to test different approaches, the onus is on businesses to consider how to develop and support people to adapt in this changing world.

But the fact of the matter is that this learning isn’t happening yet. One thing that came out of our research is that many older workers think their employers are more focused on helping their younger colleagues at their expense.

For example, 35% of baby boomers told us that their employer puts more effort into recruiting and developing young people than on retaining or retraining older workers.

And more than two-fifths of older workers told us they believe the Government’s policies are too focused on supporting young people into work. Surely this generational tension could be avoided if all employees felt they had equal access to training and workplace development?

Become age-agnostic

Employers have to start thinking carefully not just about their recruitment strategies for people of different ages, but how they develop and engage their whole workforce, regardless of age. Simply put, there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The good news is that employees crave more support and will be receptive to it.

Nearly two-hthirds of both older and younger workers told us they wanted training on how to work with different generations.

The message coming through loud and clear is that it is time for businesses to plan for the office environment of the future.

If, as the Chancellor hopes, the Government is to make a success of training, the first priority for businesses must be tackling generational misunderstandings.

We need to ensure that employees of different ages don’t feel left out in the cold either by policymakers, or by bosses focused more on their immediate bottom line than preparing for a rapidly transforming workplace.

Right now the youngest employees may be separated from the oldest by just 20 or 30 years, but that gap is widening – and it’s time to respond.

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