With people living and working for longer than ever before, international leadership development organisation Common Purpose held an event looking at how cities might maximise the opportunities of an intergenerational workforce.

The UK government predicts that by 2020 a third of workers will be over 50, yet with nearly 40% of its population under-25, and five universities within the city boundaries, Birmingham is positioned to have one of the most diverse workforce age ranges - if it can retain and attract talented people to the city.  Organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the skills gaps that exists on both sides of the generational divide, particularly as technology advances.

Held within the city’s Eastside, home to a number of educational institutions with over 10,000 students, Birmingham City University played host to the first in a series of events designed to get the conversation started.  Expectations from the event were high, with news of the event generating five stories in local media, and interest online.

For this pilot event, there were over 30 guests, ranging from senior figures within the education sector through to local businesses, professional services firms and a number of young people and students. 

The event started with input from three well-respected, cross-sector leaders to spark the conversations; host Jo Birch, Director of Enterprise Innovation and Business Engagement at Birmingham City University; Anita Bhalla OBE, Chair of Performances Birmingham and Chair of the WM Mayor’s Leadership Commission; and Ammo Talwar MBE, Founder and CEO of Punch Records and Chair of Directors of Core Education Trust. The trio talked about their experiences of intergenerational learning, both from personal and strategic perspectives.

It was then over to the groups to discuss the challenges and opportunities that an intergenerational workforce might present.  Conversation was rife, with several of the groups highlighting the importance of clear and open dialogue, understanding that whilst many felt the centre of the city has changed dramatically over recently years, this hasn’t always been felt further out.  The need for conversations to take place in an environment which fosters open dialogue where “sons and daughters of Birmingham”, as one group described themselves, can work on raising aspirations and expectations, was strongly articulated.

Managing partner, Amardeep Gill, at Trowers & Hamlins, who was in attendance, spoke of the need for both sides to be heard: “It’s about communicating effectively and breaking down any barriers  and actually having honest conversations about aspirations, expectations and what both sides can learn from each other. It’s that collective learning piece for me that I think is so fundamental.”

Communication was a recurring theme, especially the need to effectively communicate with mutual benefit.  Several examples were given of the differences in the way generations communicate, with the rapid pace of new technology and tools available, meaning this is regularly changing.

Oliver Hills, managing director of Updates Media, who runs the popular Birmingham Updates news platform, said; “The question is how can we continue to learn from the older generation, but actually allow them to learn from the younger generation coming through. The pace of change in the world and society at the moment is so fast that you have to really adapt.”

Groups talked about the need to adapt and the mutual benefit of different generations learning from each other.  Calls were made for more reverse mentoring, where senior leaders are paired with younger employees to bridge respective skills gaps, particularly around technology. This was highlighted by an anecdote from one attendee whose mother lives in a housing association which recently expanded to include mature students from a local university. Her mother is now able to use FaceTime conversations with her daughter, and the student who taught her how is also benefiting from her life experience.

With the issue of diversity being an important topic to the city of Birmingham, it was understandable that discussions would touch on the intersection of age with other aspects of diversity, the focus being placed not on division or what makes different generations or communities different, but a mutual understanding.

Professor Monder Ram, Director for the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship at Birmingham Business School summed up the event well; “This is a conversation that needs to happen, a conversation about how Birmingham can learn from its past to create a new dynamic and inclusive future. It’s a conversation about how everyone in this city is part of the narrative of the city.

“I am delighted that Common Purpose has decided to initiate this series of conversation about how intergenerational leadership needs to be embedded at the heart of what this city does. What it means in practical terms is all sectors of the city, all communities getting involved, coming together in a way that they haven’t done in the past, to offer their contribution to create a dynamic and more inclusive city.”

Conversations continued well after the formal discussions had been called to a close. The hashtag #InterGenLeaders reach over 80,000 accounts and several participants talked about next steps in the conversation. Common Purpose is now planning the next event to carry on the conversation.