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Best Places to Work

As the age range in the workforce widens, Caffeine asks founders and experts about generational differences in the workplace and how to bridge them.


Mary Hurley

The Unlock Innovation team: Dorenda Britten, Chris Cole and Ann Brown

When asked about the generation gap within her three-person co-founder team, Chris Cole says she only noticed because they took a photo together: “It hadn’t occurred to me before that.” 

A Gen Xer, Cole makes up the “middle part of the [generational] sandwich” that is Unlock Innovation.

Formerly known as ReThink Tech Talent, the startup empowers organisations to access the innovative potential that dyslexic individuals can bring to the workforce. Although New Zealand lacks specific data on the prevalence of dyslexia, international studies estimate it affects one in five individuals.

Cole, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult, wonders if her neurodiversity has something to do with her not noticing: “Age has never been something that I’ve been aware of because I’m used to differences. If it’s just a difference that comes from a generation, then it’s just another difference.” 

Cole’s co-founders Dorenda Britten and Ann Brown are a Boomer and a Millennial, respectively. Britten, who was diagnosed dyslexic at age 74, is the startup’s pioneer. 

Reflecting on the formation of the Unlock Innovation team, she says, “I am probably an idealist, but age didn’t matter; what did was skills and a willingness to do the work” – something the team tested by working together before officially setting up the business earlier this year. 

“An entrepreneurial mindset has nothing to do with age; it’s about your wiring,” she says. 

While such diversity in a founding team is rare, intergenerational workplaces are increasingly common as the world’s workforce ages. 

In New Zealand, the Ministry for Social Development reports older workers make up a third of the labour force and are the fastest-growing demographic among workers – a result of increased longevity, the cost of living crisis and an ageing population. 

While there are plenty of advantages to an intergenerational team, it isn’t without its challenges. So, how to best make it work? 

A growing divide

There are five generations in the workforce today, marked by about 15-20 years between them: the pre-1945 Traditionalists, the 1946–1964 Baby Boomers, the 1965–1980 Gen Xs, the 1981–1995 Millennials and, finally, the 1996–2012 Gen Zs or Zoomers. 

While there are differences between each, Humankind CEO Kalyn (KP) Ponti says that in the workforce, Gen Z and Millenials can broadly be categorised into one block and Gen X and Boomers another. Traditionalists, she says, are not typically present in the startup space. 

Products of their time, each generation comes with its own set of values and needs, which can be difficult for organisations to balance, she says. 

For instance, Baby Boomers and Gen X have “adopted the values of some of the previous generations”, says Ponti. They have a sense of duty to their workplace, holding traditional views of hard work and paying their dues. 

An ideal work environment for these generations reflects a more authoritative leadership style, with structure, clear goals and specific deadlines that advance objectives. 

They also don’t require much feedback or micromanaging, she says, “generally assum[ing] things are on track unless someone tells them otherwise”. 

In terms of retention, this older cohort is largely motivated by money, bonuses and clear promotion paths. 

Millennials and Gen Z, on the other hand, mark a shift towards purpose, professional development and the desire to be part of work that’s bigger than themselves, says Ponti. 

In contrast to the ‘job for life’ mentality of some of their predecessors, this younger cohort is willing to switch jobs if they aren’t feeling fulfilled and prefer a higher level of feedback and engagement.

One big shift that’s occurred as Millenials and Gen Z have entered the workforce is a greater focus in workplaces on wellness, flexibility and connectedness that “the previous generation just didn’t think as much about”, says Ponti. 

She says flexible work arrangements are now among the top three issues for employers and employees, with conversations usually centring around the work-from-home versus in-office question. However, flexibility encompasses many other factors, such as full-time versus part-time work, job sharing and work hours. 

Cole admires the younger generations’ focus on wellness. 

“My kids are all Gen Zs, and they’ve got much better work/life balance. Us Gen Xers didn’t even question it,” she says. 

As with all trends, it is important to note these are generalisations. “Every person is different,” says Ponti. 

Humankind CEO Kalyn Ponti

Taking action

Broadly, one generation leads an organisation, and another enters the workforce with different values, says Ponti. 

In her experience, the best way to understand their different values is by asking employees for their input and, where possible, actioning it. Treat them as you would stakeholders, she says. 

With growing awareness around wellbeing, for instance, one conversation could be around employers’ responsibility for mental health. This could look like providing access to a mental health app or service as ‘work perks’, or having team members lead grassroots initiatives like celebrating Mental Health Week. 

Of course, employers can’t provide everything, Ponti says, but letting people feel heard and explaining why something can or cannot be instituted is valuable. 

Another way to manage the different values is to set expectations from the start, especially for roles within an organisation as fickle as a startup. 

This requires transparent discussions during the hiring process. These conversations should cover high-level expectations, such as in-office attendance days and the possibility of working outside regular hours, as well as nitty-gritty agreements on aspects like Slack usage and the specific times when notifications should be turned off.

Ponti says these conversations must also be ongoing. 

To meet younger generations’ professional development needs, she recommends getting creative by instituting non-traditional ways of demonstrating movement and growth. 

It’s possible to create opportunities without ending up overwhelmed by hierarchy or layers, she says – for instance, through implementing a DEI group lead or a people lead – although further responsibility should be appropriately compensated. 

Ultimately, she emphasises humans are more alike than not, even across generations: “We all have fundamental needs to contribute, to belong and be part of a group.” 

“If [the intergenerational element] actually feels like a challenge in your organisation or if there’s just kind of some things bubbling away around the attitudes towards it – because it does come up – have an open discussion about it.” 

A recent conversation between the Gen Z author and Gen X coworker

Bridging the gap

“I’ll tell you one problem, and it definitely comes from my age,” says Britten. “It’s my impatience with technology. My mind just doesn’t go there.” 

“That can be frustrating for people. I will email them or ring them up to ask, ‘Where can I find ‘blah blah blah?’ And they do sometimes get a bit grumpy, but that’s fair enough because I’m probably not going to change.”

Brown, the Millennial of the group, also sees technology as the most apparent generational divide. 

“It sounds rude, and it’s not intended to be, but when it comes to technology, that’s when I noticed,” she says. “There are certainly a lot of emails that go around that could just be file drops and a lot of meetings that could just be emails.”

While she says she doesn’t necessarily have to guide anyone through technology use, there are times when the Unlock Innovation team have to find workarounds.

On the other hand, Brown says the life and work experience Britten and Cole can provide has been “humbling” – in a positive way, helping her cope with unknown situations.

“[Observing] the ebb and flow of life is only possible from a certain vantage point,” she says. “With [it], you can stand back and say, ‘Yes, we’ve been here before, and it looks like this.’ Or, you can say, ‘This doesn’t feel familiar at all.’”

Cole agrees, saying there are times when things haven’t looked as defined as they would like, and she and Britten have been able to assure Brown “it’s going to be okay”. 

“With experience, you learn to mellow and roll with the punches,” says Cole. 

Says Brown: “My generation and younger can’t necessarily do that.” 

Parting words

Brown: What’s always important to me in life is empathy; to remember where someone’s coming from. Take the time to listen, remind yourself of the benefits and be patient. 

Cole: It always comes back to communication. Be clear and support each other. There’s value in everything; young people have energy, and older people have wisdom and different experiences. Why aren’t we working together?

Britten: For older generations, remember to listen to the young people. For younger generations, remember older people are still relevant. From my perspective, we’re doing this for you. We’re not here to tell you what to do; we’re here to give you our perspective if asked.

In all transparency, this piece is written from the perspective of an older Gen Z who remembers the sound of dial-up and knows how to use a home phone. 

Employee experience is at the heart of Best Places to Work – a programme Caffeine is supporting as its media partner for the startup community. The Best Places to Work employee engagement survey is now open.


Mary Hurley

Mary Hurley brings three years experience in the online media industry to the Caffeine team. Having previously specialised in environmental and science communications, she looks forward to connecting with founders and exploring the startup scene in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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