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Motivating the multigenerational workforce with Dr. Mary Collins

People are living longer and working longer. At some organizations, the workforce can even comprise up to five different generations, spanning from Traditionalists to Gen Z. And while each particular cohort has its own unique strengths, it can be a tricky task trying to understand how to leverage a multigenerational team for success. 

Luckily, we had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Dr. Mary Collins about this very topic. A Chartered Psychologist and Professional Executive Coach who is a leading expert in the field of engaging the multigenerational workplace, Mary gave us great advice on avoiding age bias, how to motivate the Gen Z workforce and the lasting effects of COVID. Let’s dive in!

Multigenerational workforce

Age bias 

According to Mary, discussions about age and life stage should always come with a very particular health warning – don’t stereotype, assume or assign. It can be all too easy to oversimplify the situation, believing, for example, that the youth are tech whizzes and older generations are luddites. It’s so disrespectful and completely belies any actual factual data. Age bias is a widespread concern in the workforce and is a big challenge to overcome when trying to forge equity. Mary pointed to research undertaken by Anglia Ruskin University to highlight this. This longitudinal study showed that when a 50 year old and 28 year old, with similar skills and attributes, apply for a job, the 50 year old is 4.2 times less likely to get called for an interview. And this figure rises to 5.3 if the candidate is female. 

In terms of remedying this strained view on the older generation, Mary firmly believes it comes back to inclusivity. We have to think: “what is the business case for integrating older generations, like baby boomers, into the framework of an organization?” Well, according to Mary, multi-age teams are 80% more effective at making better decisions. The wisdom and deep smarts that come with years of experience should not be overlooked, but it often is. There is a view that boomers lack innovation and are merely cruising towards retirement. But in research conducted by Ashridge, the temperature was much different. The older generations cited feeling more comfortable in their own skin, creative and energized. They wanted to be mentors and give back. Bias and stereotyping about age can lead to some seriously erroneous conclusions about a person’s abilities and drive. 

Motivating younger generations

One of the interesting things about the multigenerational workforce is how different each cohort is. And with the ever-expanding nature of Gen Z into the employment sector, it’s important to understand what motivates them. Thankfully, Mary has done considerable research on how to engage younger generations in the workplace, culminating in the MOTIVATE Framework.

Multigenerational workforce

This tool, based on a study of over 500 young professionals, indicates the key themes that influence this generation in the workplace. As you can see from the diagram above, Mary found that supportive leadership, positive relationships at work and flexibility were integral components to their drive. This generation “wants access, not ownership,” she says. They aren’t interested in getting tied into an organization. They value experiences. And because of this, Mary feels that companies need to get better at managing exits. That the old, job-for-life model just won’t adhere to a Gen Z employee that wants to make an impact and move on.

Having a fuller picture like this can be of great benefit to leaders. It gives them a higher level of understanding about this younger cohort and how best to manage and engage them. The trend that Mary unearthed was one towards an almost paternalistic manager, one who firmly supports but will also offer increased flexibility when needed.

The effect of COVID

COVID has been such a disrupter for the workplace. But, it’s effect on the different generations has been quite eye-opening. Research undertaken by Deloitte found that, while younger generations may be the digital natives, it was the 50+ group that adapted much better to the shifts and changes that the pandemic brought. And while it may seem counterintuitive, Mary wasn’t surprised by these findings. She told us that levels of depression, loneliness and anxiety are at an all-time high amongst Gen Z, and COVID has only exacerbated this. Older generations, who are more settled, were much more resilient to the vast alterations that were coming almost daily. 

In her view, it’ll be up to leaders to step-up and support this. How? With radical empathy. According to Mary, empathy levels have dropped over 40% in the last 20 years. Post-pandemic, these will have to build. It may seem amorphous to suggest that empathy can be increased or learned, but Mary absolutely advocates for it. “Empathy is a muscle,” she says, and it’s important to work on your listening skills, your attention, your time and presence. The workforce, and more specifically the younger workforce, has been rocked by COVID. It’s imperative to show empathy.

The final word

When it comes to motivating a multigenerational workforce, Mary reminded us that we have to acknowledge some universal human needs. Regardless of age, everyone wants to be respected, recognized and appreciated. While nuances exist among all the different cohorts of age or life stage that can absolutely inform and improve how you manage and motivate teams, without this bedrock, it’s immaterial. And work absolutely still needs to be done; this narrative that discriminates because of age is immensely damaging – both for the individual and the organization. Strength and success always lies in difference.

For more insights on the multigenerational workforce, catch Mary’s full episode of The Shortlist here:


Mary has also recently released a new book. “Recruiting Talented People” is a practical guide on the recruitment life cycle, offering tips and insights on everything from establishing employer brands and interview processes, right through to induction. Check it out!

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