The generation gain: Career development and the ‘knowledge cascade’

James Brown

By James Brown, Managing Partner and co-founder, Hall Brown Family Law
Businesses are often born of a single great idea – the result of a spark of genius occurring to one person or a collaboration among a group of people.

Nevertheless, how many companies realise their full potential without the involvement of far more individuals?

Whilst entrepreneurs may contribute the essential vision and ambition, it usually takes input from a variety of sources to transform ideas and energy into output.

An essential part of that process is the blending of experience and insight and that means bringing together people of different ages and from different backgrounds.

Yet we arguably find ourselves at a critical point in business development, whereby the quest for flexibility in how businesses operate potentially risks undermining the traditional model of workplace learning.

In July, a Bill allowing workers to request variations to certain of their terms of employment became law. According to the Business and Trade Minister, Kevin Hollinrake, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act will benefit millions of people across the UK.

He maintains that it will be good for businesses too because that “a happier workforce means increased productivity”.

Yet the new law has underlined a growing tension between generational attitudes in the workplace which must be carefully managed to avoid derailing the path to success.

There are those who believe that flexible working is purely a legacy of the pandemic and enforced home working at a time when most offices were not allowed to open.

In truth, UK law allowed the parents of young or disabled children to vary their conditions of work 20 years ago.

A more substantial change, however, was detected a decade later in a survey of the attitudes of thousands of so-called ‘Millennial’ employees worldwide by the consultancy PwC.

Three-quarters of respondents complained that their work demands interfered with their personal lives. Two-thirds expressed a desire to change their hours of work and work from home.

That outlook, of course, clashes with older and more experienced members of staff, for whom the office or factory floor is the only real place of work.

Their views are arguably becoming more relevant due to the fact that, by 2025, there will be more than a million more people aged 50 and over in UK workplaces. By that point, one-in-three individuals of working age (16-64) will in fact be middle-aged.

At the same time, numerous studies have highlighted the dramatic loss of skills and experience from the UK workforce since the pandemic.

Since the start of lockdown in March 2020, the rise in economic inactivity has been greatest among those aged between 50 and 64.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that the pattern had particularly affected the professions and the ranks of the self-employed.

Many of the middle-aged men and women who have stepped out of the workforce have suggested, though, that they may return due to the rise in the cost of living.

Those who choose to join others of a similar age as more senior staff members of UK plc provide bosses with something of a blessing and a challenge too.

The blessing is that they bring countless years of experience. The challenge is how to combine that with the different attitudes of younger employees.

Older staff generally developed by not only doing work but learning how to do it well alongside more senior staff of their own in their place of work: the so-called ‘knowledge cascade’.

It is a learning process which technology – for all its many gifts – cannot completely replicate.

That is a point not even least on Zoom, one of the companies responsible for the technology which has made remote working feasible.

It has reportedly instructed employees to work from their offices at least two days a week, so that they can “interact with their teams”.

As the co-founder of a successful business, I have become immersed in this very conundrum: how to help talented younger staff progress and retain very capable, older colleagues while achieving a balance in how, when and where people work.

Although they may be seen as competing interests, in my opinion neither age differences nor flexible working patterns are incompatible.

It is possible for everyone – staff and bosses – to capitalise on the range of energy and experience.

At Hall Brown, we are in the process of rolling out a programme giving every team member not only a line manager but a mentor and supervisor to offer constant advice and support.

Furthermore, that network extends across all of our four offices, ensuring regular communication of the sort which could be impeded by a headlong rush to remote working.

We view the range of ages in our team (our oldest staff member is 79 and our youngest recruit is 22) as offering complementary rather than conflicting perspectives for the betterment of the entire firm. No viewpoint is overlooked.

Our approach may not, of course, work for all.

However, I think that in an age of great shifts in the make-up of our workforce and how that workforce functions, it is important to regard flexibility not just in terms of location or hours but mindset, in order to avoid the ‘cascade’ of knowledge from one generation to another simply drying up.