Wisdom in the workplace


With the launch of the Elderberry site I am reposting a blog I wrote back in October 2012 about the possibility of embracing cross-generational diversity and wisdom in workplaces. Seeing as I am also about to attend the Wisdom2.0 conference in San Francisco I thought it was apt to pull this one back out as a way of reflecting on what is possible. I will share my thoughts on this post conference as well. ------

For some months I have been contemplating the notion of wisdom in the workplace. What constitutes wisdom at work? Who has wisdom? What wisdom will we need for the future of work? How do we share wisdom?

These questions were triggered by a conversation earlier this year with my uncle Piet in which he told me that at the ripe ol’ age of 75, he had just started a recruitment agency. The concept for Piet’s business idea was borne out of the realisation that there is a large group of retirees who want or need to work. He had identified a need in himself (and others around him) and saw the opportunity to build a business around it. While I admired Piet’s tenacity, courage and self-belief to start up another business at 75, I didn’t actually give it much thought…Until a couple of months later when I researching Australian demographic trends.

I was startled to find out that, according to a report released by Treasury in 2004 found that by 2040, close to 25% of the Australian population will be over 65 years of age and growth in the working ages (15-64) will have stopped! With an ageing population  also comes a changing workforce demographic. In a more recent publication Treasury reports that the percentage of people over 55 in paid work has grown from around 24 % to 34% in the last 10 years. And this is not going to slow down.

In The 2020 Workplace, Meister and Willyerd propose that we will have four generations in the workforce by 2012 and within the next 10 years we will see five generations working together. Just recently there have been a lot of discussions about the large losses in the Australian superannuation pool and the need for many babyboomers to postpone their retirement plans. So it won’t be long before we have five generations in the workplace, creating a new form of diversity we haven’t seen before.

Off course there are other trends that are changing the nature of work such as the pervasiveness of technology, our hyper-connectivity, the shifting paradigm of business ethics and corporate responsibility, and the increased knowledge economy. Overlay this complex global challenges  such natural resource depletion, climate change, poverty and inequity and we see a very different future for companies and the way in which we will work. One might argue, as Gary Hamel so eloquently does, that to build companies fit for the future, we must build companies fit for human beings.

So how do we build organisations fit for human beings? There’s no doubt that we will need to understand the characteristics of the generations, and on the basis of this knowledge develop different strategies to attract and retain, communicate, develop and engage members of each generation. When I say this I don’t simply mean the development of a series of strategies, one to suit each generation.

Surely, we can be more bold and innovative than that. I believe having five generations in the workplace is a exciting prospect for the future of work.

The way I see it, the diversity in age, experience, perception and knowledge represents a pool of wisdom with unlimited potential for innovation.

At times I read and hear a great deal of misunderstanding between the generations and generalisations that aren’t necessarily useful. Personally, as a member of Gen X generation, I am inspired to see Gen Ys having multiple businesses by the time they are 22 and who challenge the assumptions about life and work that I fiercely held as the truth (and the only way) when I was their age. Similarly I am inspired by people like my uncle who are constantly seeking to learn from people younger than themselves, who impart their knowledge and advice to me as a gift, and who embrace new ventures without the fear of old age holding them back.  I believe these examples all represent an element of wisdom needed in the future of work.

Imagine a workplace where we are valued for the wisdom we offer, regardless of age or title. Where we can share our experience, perceptions and knowledge to work together. I can.