Brett Hill: The dangers of demographic generalisation in the workplace

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Demographic generalisations continue to make headlines, as another trait of a particular age group is “exposed” for readers to feast on and debate. While having groupings such as “Millennials” and “Baby Boomers” can be useful in the workplace – as a starting point to understand the potential values and motivators of employees according to age, businesses are at risk of relying on them too heavily and thus alienating swathes of workers based on assumptions.

Three of the most common age-based assumptions that employers can make, that we find can frustrate employees are:

Technology is for the young

Whilst Millennials (those born 1981-1995) still hold the crown for adoption of technology, the gap is rapidly closing with Gen Xers (born 1965 – 1980) and Baby Boomers (born 1947 – 1964). Yet employers can fall foul when implementing new technology by solely aiming it at Millennials and younger – potentially alienating the older workforce from digital benefits and communications. In fact, more Gen Xers have tablets than Millennials (64 per cent to 54 per cent respectively) and the gap of those owning a Facebook account has closed to 76 per cent and 82 per cent respectively. A technologically savvy employee benefits platform, that links with digital health tracking watches and social media accounts for example, can therefore fall flat if communications are primarily targeted at younger employees – missing a great opportunity to engage the older workforce too.

Finances only interest older workers

Businesses can assume that employees in the final decade of their career may be more interested in their finances than others; trying to put everything in order to fund retirement. This can often result in communications about financial benefits, such as group life assurance, income protection and retirement planning, being aimed at older employees. Such targeting can serve to frustrate the likes of Millennials, who arguably have a greater need for financial planning and advice – being the generation to have university fees trebled and dreams of owning a home thwarted. However, assumptions about Millennial lifestyles – for example, preferring to spend wages on experiences rather than saving for the future – can mean that communications around financial benefits aren’t targeted at them. When in practice it could be a benefit they would value highly.
An employee in their early 20s may not see the need for income protection, for example, as they may still be living with their parents and not have many financial responsibilities that would need covering if they were to fall ill. Fast forward a decade however, and the same employee could have dependants and a large mortgage – which would benefit from financial support, should they no longer be able to work.  As with the take-up of all benefits, the key to engagement is in the quality of communication. And if assumptions are made based on age, which then filter through to communications, it can disengage employees if they don’t feel it’s an accurate reflection of them. With the example above, an employee could have significant financial responsibilities in their early 20s. Another could become a first-time parent in their 50s. So rather than basing communications on age and lifestyle assumptions, it could be better to focus on benefits on circumstances instead – which can reach different audiences, regardless of age.

Wellbeing benefits for the older generations

As health can deteriorate the older we get, and associated pressures can take its toll on mental health, there may be a temptation to target wellbeing benefits at older generations. Private medical insurance (PMI) for example, can be assumed to be of greater interest to older staff members, as their chances of experiencing a health concern increase with age. However, with cancer survival rates improving, we can see that the healthcare system and individuals are moving towards a more preventative mindset as a means of tackling major illnesses and prolonging life in terms of longevity and quality. This means that keeping on top of health – through a good diet, regular exercise and health screenings – is important for all ages. Particularly when considering that a third of the global population is expected to be overweight or obese by 2030, with warnings that a bad diet is worse than drugs, alcohol and tobacco on our health combined. Even closer to home, according to Cancer Research UK, Millennials are on track to be the most overweight generation since records began. We face a local and global obesity crisis and employers can be part of the solution. Therefore, benefits that help employees to achieve positive physical wellbeing should be targeted at all ages – not just older workers.

The most crucial point throughout is to remember that communications around benefits should not be based on assumptions, age or otherwise, but tailored and personalised where possible. Whilst demographics around generations still hold value, with regards to providing a starting point for benefits and communications, the ultimate goal should be to gain a thorough understanding of the workforce for targeting to be more effective. The risk of not doing so, can result in talent going to a competitor that has taken the time to understand them.

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About Brett Hill

Brett Hill is Managing Director of The Health Insurance Group, a position he has held since 2015 following two years as Commercial Director and four years as Sales and Marketing Director. Brett’s career spans 20 years, working in technical and senior management roles with leading insurance companies, including AXA PPP Healthcare, Standard Life Healthcare and Unum.
Brett has been responsible for charting the company’s increasing work in wellbeing and prevention, guiding clients in understanding the relationship between employee's health and business performance.

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  1. Sadly, the over reliance on ‘profiling’ of generations in the workplace and in broader society is still under criticised. Since the mid 90s when this practice came into vogue it’s been flawed. We seem to be OK with putting people of different generations ‘into boxes’ whereas we’d be vilified for it if we did it for different genders, races or sexual orientation. Rightly so. Creating divides on any basis other than valid and reliable mechanisms is just arbitrary and convenient discrimination. It’s beyond time that we let it go.

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