Next gen 1
21 June 2017

How to manage a multi-generational law firm

Published on 21 June 2017

With the hypothetical Australian lawyer now ranging in age from 22 to 82, law firms are facing a generational mix more diverse than ever before. In some cases, up to five distinct generational demographics – the traditionalists, the baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y (millenials)  and Gen Z – share an office, jostling for position, power and influence. Insights explores how firms are managing the competing demands of multiple generations, and what management experts have to say on how best to approach these challenges and retain talent.

“As of 2015, half of the world’s population is under 30 and by 2020 they will make up the largest population of the workforce,” said Angela Farrelly, founder of Disruptive Unicorns. Farrelly is working with the College of Law New Zealand on a workshop, Understanding Millenials.

Farrelly noted that there is often confusion about which ages make up each generation. The table below outlines the birth years for each generation:

 

Generation name

Births start

Births end

Veteran/Traditionalist 1939 1947

Baby Boomer Generation

1948

1963

Generation X

1964

1978

Generation Y - The Millennial

1979

1995

Generation Z

1996

2010

 

“In a multi-generational workforce, there is potential for negative stereotyping,” observed Seb O’Connell, managing director of recruitment firm, Cielo, to Forbes. “Older workers may perceive millennials as entitled, tech-obsessed or too eager to challenge norms while millennial employees could see previous generations as being ‘stuck in their ways’ and difficult to train. Organisations need to take steps to ensure managers overcome their unconscious bias. Younger workers’ enthusiasm for trying new things could be used to encourage a culture of innovation, while older workers can leverage their experience and broad perspective to help millennials understand some of the costs and risks associated with their ideas.”

The “rite of passage,” Farrelly says, of older workers complaining about their younger colleagues is not new. “The psychology of the workforce is the same as it has always been, but there are more tools for communication now,” she saids

Lecturers Martin Klaffke and Robyn Johns, who specialise in organisational behaviour and HR, feel this sentiment reflects an “experienced employee who learnt as a graduate 30 years ago that hard work and adaptation were key to career progression.”

As they noted in their commentary for The Conversation, baby boomer management may “not easily understand the younger generation’s desire for individual treatment and work-life balance. Whereas elder employees expect respect for seniority experience alone, Gen Y employees are reluctant to bow to sheer age, and tend to base praise on current performance levels.”

 

Cross mentoring and the question of succession

Resolving the question of succession within firms may go some way towards addressing greater generational harmony.

“Baby boomers are set to retire and we need millennials to fill that talent gap,” said Farrelly.

Farrelly said there is room for cross mentoring among the Baby Boomers/Generation X and Generation Y/Millennials.

“The world has seen unprecedented change and we are in the middle of a digital evolution,” she said. “We are in a time where experience doesn’t count – experience is dangerous in the digital age because we can’t do things the way we used to. Digitally savvy employees, who can be from different generations, can bring value.”

Managing multiple generations is a challenge facing the legal profession as a whole, and will require a range of solutions across the generations.