Using life stages

Numerous studies show how to engage a diverse workforce by focusing on different age groups, but how many are using life stages to improve diversity? Not everyone fits into the neat employee stereotypes of young and ambitious, old and family-orientated.

“Life stages” can be defined as the major, deeply affecting, perhaps “spiritual” processes in an adult’s life.  At these times they tend to reassess and re-balance their life values and priorities. The consequences of these processes can have a big impact on a person’s attitude towards work.

Taking the impact of life stages seriously

Caroline Waters, deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), has recently released a statement urging recruiters and human resources professionals to change their assumptions about employees and to take this “life stage” approach seriously.  She says that currently, we focus too much on general characteristics.  Using characteristics such as age and religion when determining how to manage people, is the wrong way to go about things.  This approach does nothing to improve employee engagement and retention.

Obviously, in a large company, the propensity for HR to stereotype employees based on the superficial traits of their age, is high. But let’s be fair – no team can be expected to personalise their treatment of every single employee.

The solution is therefore somewhere in between.  Make your team aware of using life stages to improve diversity.  At the same time avoiding the urge to lay down a prescriptive protocol for each stage.

A brief overview of identifying life stages.

In 1978, Daniel Levinson, a psychologist, published his “Seasons of Life” theory.  This is one of the most widely regarded theories on the stages of growth that occur during adulthood. His theory is made up of sequence-like stages.  Each stage being shaped by an event or action that leads into the next stage.

The first three life stages:

  1. Early Adult Transition. A person leaves adolescence and begins to make choices about adult life. This includes whether to enter the workforce, choose a serious relationship, or to leave home.
  2. Entering the Adult World.  A person makes more concrete decisions regarding their occupation, friendships, values, and lifestyles.
  3. Early Transitions. Lifestyle changes could be mild or more severe in this stage.  Much depends on, for example, the impact of marriage or having children.

With this in mind, there follows a set of principles to implement using life stages to improve diversity in your organisation.

Diverse trends

A recent CIPD report discovered that there is indeed a strong link between age and work priorities.  For example, younger people seem to hold values such as trust, recognition (in terms of promotions and career growth) and freedom highly.  0lder age groups generally focus on achieving a good work-life balance.

It is, of course, necessary to be aware of these overarching trends. However, it’s also important to keep an open mind and to understand that many other factors play a part in each individual’s attitude to work  Here are some scenarios which go against the stereotypical response and are examples of using life stages to improve diversity.

1. Having things in common beyond religion

A Jewish male, for example, in his early twenties who has just become a father might have much more in common with a 40-something Muslim employee who has also just become a father, than with other employees of his own age and religion.

2. A young person looking for career stability over development

Younger Gen Y and Millennial professionals may, in general, emphasise career development opportunities and “finding their calling” as a key driver.  However, this is not the case for every individual.

A 25-year-old who has already committed to something in life early (e.g. is married) may instead be looking for a consistent and stable work commitment, rather than pursuing a more progressive, but riskier, career path.

Recruitment and HR teams should ask more personal questions about employees before pitching career opportunities or making structural changes.

3. Recognise an older person seeking career progression over stability

Similarly, there is a large percentage of the older working population who may feel like they have yet to assert themselves in a corporate environment. Perhaps they focused on more ‘nurturing’ qualities during young adulthood, like taking care of family, travelling, or developing personal relationships.

During the mid-life transition, we often want to rebalance, and delving into a new career could be the right move for those who have previously been unsure of what they wanted. Again, it’s always worth understanding an individual’s back-story.

Group and inspire people using employee networks

In any professional setting, internal networks flourish naturally: people in similar life stages will naturally share ideas and work together. As they connect around shared interests and knowledge, they may build informal social networks, often via smartphones, social media, community websites, and other accessories of the digital age.

Use such things as employee surveys, e-mail and ad hoc analysis to map the way people gravitate towards each other within your organisation and treat individuals based on the characteristics of their network.

Understand corporate culture when using life stages to improve diversity

One final great way to understand employee life stages within your organisation is to think “people operations” (originally pioneered by Google). This is essentially a data-led approach to human resources, based on retaining employees by understanding what drives them. Employee satisfaction surveys, team assessments and social media are great ways to accurately identify issues that affect your organisation.

Traditionally the employee survey doesn’t ask employees how many different aspects of their work matter to them. However, I see no reason why organisations couldn’t start to have this kind of dialogue with their employees.

  • About the Author
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Hugh is the CEO of Thymometrics, a supplier of employee engagement surveys. He has over 34 years’ experience in IT in various roles, with a patent relating to Virtual Worlds, and he holds an MA in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge.