Reaching Across the Generational Divide to Inspire Real Change

Published on October 24, 2017

Trailblazer Challenge for Seasoned Leaders and Rising Changemakers

No matter your age or experience, today’s workplace can feel like a jungle. As the Quality of Life Conference wound down, four leaders from different generations and backgrounds came together for what moderator Thomas Jelley, VP Sodexo Institute for Quality of Life, called a “mini Quality of Life hackathon.” Each one posed a question or challenge for the others to reflect upon.

How Can We Make Young People Blossom?

Serial entrepreneur Wendy Luhabe has mentored young people for more than 20 years and seen the frustration they can feel at work. How, she wondered, do we build an organization where younger generations blossom? In response, Takunda Ushe, who leads an entrepreneurship accelerator hub for youth in South Africa, underlined the importance of mentorship. Professor Sir Cary Cooper, age 77, had more radical advice: “Older people, as you get to 55-60, leave!” he said. “Either leave and do something different or take a role that mentors younger people.”

What’s the Upshot of the Gig Economy?

Sissel Hansen, a pioneer of the Nordic startup scene, wondered about the disadvantages of the gig economy. How will it affect young workers, who miss out on job security, good working hours and fair benefits?

Cooper said that in the long run, using people as “disposable assets” will not work. “I think humans need to some extent a sense of security, loyalty, trust.” Ushe felt that policymakers should decide who is responsible for providing benefits to employees. And, he added, “Just because you’re a startup you don’t escape responsibility” for employee well-being.

Where to Go From Here?

Only 21 years old, Ushe is director of a company that has thrived from youth involvement but has reached a stage where it needs more sustainable practices. He asked his colleagues what advice they had for the leader of a social enterprise made up of volunteers with limited skills.

Luhabe suggested that he align his visionaries with experienced people who can help them execute their vision, and that he build capacity by partnering with entrepreneurs. Hansen spoke about the choice between becoming a for-profit or non-profit company, saying he should opt for the former and create an NGO to take in volunteers. “But the core people that are working 70-80 hours, they have to get paid for it, otherwise in 1 or 1½ years they will fall down.”

Who Is Really Equipped to Manage Others?

Cooper wondered: How to convince a company CEO or CFO that well-being is not a ping pong table in the office, but a business issue that will increase productivity? And, he added, many of today’s line managers don’t have the emotional skills to deal with employees in an age of job insecurity.

Luhabe agreed, saying we should start evaluating how line managers develop their people. When Jelley asked her how that evaluation might look, she said, “We would see people growing through the organization, people occupying different roles… I don’t think you can add value in a function beyond five years.”

Hansen noted that her generation has a basic problem with the top-down pyramid, and would like to see more circular organizations.

To which Cooper added one last point – why do managers feel they have to be nasty? Looking out at the crowd, he said, “Think about the people that you manage, and that they are your family... How would you like your daughter or son to be treated? And when you’re ready to go on somebody, don’t.”