Snowflakes and boomers: generational diversity in the office

Coral Hill
Coral HillAssociate Professor, University of Law

Coral Hill is associate professor at the University of Law and a non-practising solicitor. She looks at inter-generational expectations in the workplace.

Inter-generational diversity conversation

The Equality Act 2010 (EA 2010) protects workers from age-based discrimination. Generally, people take this to be discrimination against those of senior, rather than junior, years.

We are now at a time when the generation gap in workplaces is probably the widest it has ever been, with the life experiences of employees diverging considerably.

Some firms are recognising that this needs to be included in their diversity and inclusion strategy, as much as any other protected characteristic under the EA 2010. This is to ensure smooth communication and co-operation in teams, and also that they do not lose high-level talent, through lack of appreciation of the differences between people.

‘Snowflakes’ and ‘boomers’

The terms ‘snowflakes’ and ‘boomers’ are used in a pejorative manner to reference a set of generalisations. The so-called ‘snowflake generation’ represents what some see as the fragility of young people; their lack of resilience; their need for constant reassurance and special treatment; and their perceived lack of initiative. It was coined for millennials, those reaching adulthood in the 2010s, but has stuck for those that come after them.

Typical ‘boomers’ or ‘baby boomers’, on the other hand, born from approximately 1946 to the early 1960s, are seen as having benefited from excellent job prospects, free higher education and house price rises in peacetime prosperity.

Carolina Marin Pedreño, president of the City of Westminster and Holborn Law Society, says: “I entered the profession receiving training from baby boomers, when only a 'yes' and endless evenings in the office were the ways to show value and commitment. I am now training millennials who prioritise having a lifestyle outside of the office. Adaptability and trust help me build and work with a good team, but I must confess I am still surprised when I receive an email with a 'no' as a response.”

Law students and junior lawyers on occasion have had to defend themselves – and their entire generation – during job interviews, where there are jibes (however gentle) about “all young people” not coping with modern life, or belittling responses when they discuss resilience, along the lines of “it’s not as tough as when I were a lad/lassie” or similar.

Unsurprisingly, this is difficult for juniors and particularly for interviewees to challenge, but some firms are taking the initiative.

What are law firms doing?

Cooley LLP invests substantially in diversity and inclusion. Last year, it held a successful event on generational diversity. It set up a panel of staff (both lawyers and non-lawyers) from different age groups (generation X, baby boomers, millennials etc), who then discussed different ways of working (communication preferences, remote working etc) and interacting in the workplace. The aim of the event was to identify generational differences (if any) in these areas and then work out a way to bring the generations closer together.

This is one example of the general move by law firms to encourage people to bring their ‘whole’ or ‘authentic’ self to work.

Linklaters has also introduced training on inter-generational working, including client-facing resources. “Specifically, we have woven working across generations into the supervisory training we give to all trainee supervisors, with particular emphasis on effective feedback for development and building an inclusive/open environment”.

Healthy drinking cultures

The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division has highlighted the substantial increase in people under 35 who choose not to drink alcohol at all, or certainly not during the week. This affects client events, where choosing a non-alcoholic drink makes some people feel uncomfortable, as though it’s not ‘participating’ fully. In January 2020, the Junior Lawyers Division published best practice guidance for employers on creating healthy drinking cultures.

Many organisations are responding and adapting to these changes, as it also contributes to their wellbeing agenda.

One of the highly valued aspects of work for young people is being able to make a difference. A growing number of firms offer opportunities to contribute in the community or to other good causes, while being paid by the firm.

Climate change may be important to all ages, it is recognised as a higher priority with all the lobbying from an overwhelmingly younger group in society. Junior lawyers will take a keen interest in what a firm is doing to reduce its carbon emissions.

Carers and careers

Young parents or carers find certain events difficult to attend, such as evening drinks or networking events (the average age of qualification has risen to 29, so more juniors are also parents). Speaking on the issue recently, international lawyer Miriam González Durántez recalled how nervous she had been to say: “I don’t do evening events” when she had other commitments.

This is an increasingly acceptable line to take, and not just for women. Firms such as Travers Smith and Dawson Cornwell ensure that other ways for their lawyers to contribute are available and recognised, such as building a profile through social media, writing or contributing to external committees.

Creating change: what you can do

Fundamentally, it’s about treating people as individuals. Simon Davis, president of The Law Society, said recently that any interviewer or employer should always ask themselves: “How does that person feel after leaving this office?”.

Putting yourself in their shoes will help overcome prejudice or negative approaches to different generations. This isn’t always easy, but tactics such as reverse mentoring have had some very positive responses. Matching senior solicitors with new entrants gives a unique insight into the day-to-day life of a trainee or junior, provided effort and time is made to ensure the relationship is open and relaxed.

Inclusive language

Kathleen Russ, senior partner at Travers Smith, emphasises the importance of inclusive language. “In order to facilitate effective cross-generational working, and indeed working across all diversity groups, we have been running a series of inclusive language sessions for all our staff and partners. Language, particularly relating to diversity and inclusion, has evolved rapidly over a relatively short period of time.

We want to make sure that all our people are equipped to communicate with each other, and with our clients, in the most inclusive and effective way possible.”

Sharing experiences

Clearly, whatever generation we belong to, there will always be significant differences in experiences due to both global events and individual circumstances. Alleging that one generation has had it ‘easier’ than another is pointless; sharing experiences helps for everyone to see that all generations have their trials. Younger people need to recognise that assumptions about how ‘easy’ it must have been for someone who is now in a position of strength, may be completely wrong.

Boomers grew up when the norm was draughty post-war accommodation, corporal punishment at school, and limited career options for women. Indeed, individuals who practice any other way of living due to religion, sexual orientation, etc which was not deemed to fall within social norms, had an exceptionally difficult time.

To balance this, senior lawyers must accept that the ease of modern living does not necessarily convey an easy life. The uncertainty and fast pace of change in the workplace mean that succeeding in your degree is by no means a definite path to a fulfilling career – quite different from the situation in the 1970s and 1980s. Amy Clowrey, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, also points out “the increasing cost of living, most notably accommodation, which is a constant challenge for junior solicitors and trainees”.

Communication

In the workplace, generational differences need to be embraced alongside supporting structures to encourage trust. Frequently, innovation comes from communication between people from diverse backgrounds, so allowing a forum for that discussion could give your firm a cutting edge.

One of the most pertinent examples of innovation and collaboration during COVID-19 was the ease in which digital natives could adapt and assist others, not only using the technology, but also creating new approaches to work.

Whatever age group you fall into, you may have had an easy ride or an exceptionally difficult one. So before jumping to conclusions, be curious and listen to your colleagues to create good working relationships. This should come from the top and your senior partners will need to be accessible. There’s plenty of evidence that businesses with high staff morale are also the most profitable, so don’t neglect these relationships in favour of client work. 

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