The multigenerational workplace is quite the trip these days. “Boomers to Zoomers” is being used to describe it. The young Millennials we’ve talked about for years are hitting their 40s and are now jokingly called “Geriatric Millennials.” Gen X is still the overlooked middle child, many Baby Boomers are reinventing themselves over retiring, and what’s with Generation Z?
It’s time to take a fresh look at the multigenerational workplace. What we found in the research we share below boils down to this: Age-based assumptions are toxic to the workplace.
“While generational differences need to be acknowledged, assuming that age predicts potential and behaviors is damaging to recruiting and retention,” says The HT Group’s CEO/Founder Mark Turpin.
The Multigenerational Workplace Paradox
There are four main generations in the workplace today: Baby Boomers (58 to 76 years old), Gen X (42 to 57 years old), Millennials (26 to 41 years old), and Gen Z (10 to 25 years old). We could get into the stickiness of how “typical” workers of each generation think and act, but stereotyping generations can be problematic. Some experts have tried to remedy this by breaking generations down into smaller cohorts. Early Boomers who came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, Xennials between Gen X and Millennials, and so on.
“Geography plays a big role in shaping generations,” he points out. But so does every other demographic factor: race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. Then there’s that little factor called personality that—while it can be shaped by generational influences—remains powerfully unique.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also turned generational and other work stereotypes on their ends. Who would have thought that a seasoned teacher seeking a second-chance career would have advanced remote technical skills? But here we are. It could be said that no professionals learned more about remote collaboration technology in the past two years than a kindergarten teacher desperately trying to wrangle the attention of 15 tiny students through laptop screens for six hours each day.
Does Age Really Matter?
Some researchers are throwing out the idea of chronological age altogether when gauging the potential within a multigenerational workplace. It’s an important distinction, they say, because older workers are not only here to stay, but they continue to increase in numbers. A projected 13 million people age 65 and above are expected to be employed in the U.S. by 2024, compared with 8.9 million in 2016.
Noemi Nagy at the University of South Florida and Michael S. North at New York University’s Stern School of Business developed three subjective age types to characterize older workers and their potential in the workplace. According to Nagy and North:
- “Youthfuls” score high on work engagement, productivity, and leadership. They perform and feel about a decade younger than their biological ages.
- “Matures” represent the majority of older workers (40%), and while they do well in the workplace, they also have dormant potential that great employers can foster.
- “Veterans” characterize the stereotypical older worker with the lowest work motivation and engagement levels and the highest need for support and intervention. They can thrive under flexible work scheduling and postretirement bridge employment.
“Subjective age provides a novel avenue to think about successful aging and late-career interventions,” Nagy and North write. “Businesses can help not only by understanding that the labor force is rapidly aging but also by recognizing that chronological age alone is an imprecise indicator of work motivation and performance.”
Where to Go from Here?
Employers are dedicating more resources than ever to diversity initiatives, but it’s estimated that only 8% of those efforts include age diversity.
“And of organizations that do address it, the strategy has often been to simply encourage those of different generations to focus on their similarities or to deny the reality of their differences altogether. This is a missed opportunity,” write Megan W. Gerhardt, Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall, and Brandon Fogel, co-authors of Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce.
As a starting point, Dorsey recommends creating a generational snapshot of your current organization.
“This is a pie chart that shows the percentage of each generation currently in your workforce. Taking this one step to accurately visualize the percentage of generations within your workforce is always an ‘aha’ moment because rarely does the generational mix match the perception within the organization,” he explains. “This also breaks down barriers to see which generations are growing on a percentage basis and what the organization could look like in two to three years. Starting with accurate data is always the best place for informing generational strategy.”
Gerhardt, Nachemson-Ekwall, and Fogel suggest additional steps in a recent HBR article. Those steps include identifying the workplace’s generational assumptions and biases. To do this, they recommend performing assumption audits, describe-interpret-evaluate exercises, intergenerational roundtables, and mutual mentoring.
“Once you’ve tempered generational tensions by recognizing assumptions and adjusting lenses, you can work on finding productive differences with your colleagues of other generations and ways to benefit from each other’s perspectives, knowledge, and networks,” the authors conclude.
Austin is often named to the top of lists for cities that embrace multigenerational workplace ideals. Monster.com lists the following Austin jobs for the 50+ workforce as top draws: software developers, marketing managers, computer systems analysts, management analysts, IT project managers.
“There are great opportunities for multigenerational workplace magic, but the congruence doesn’t happen on its own,” Turpin says. “It takes trust, transparency, humility, and elbow grease to fix assumptions and create a culture where all generations can thrive.”