Workforce demographics are shifting, and the number of mature workers will steadily increase in the years to come.  For workers ages 55-64, 36.5% more will be in the workplace in 2016 when compared with 2006 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).  Even more dramatic increases are forecasted for those ages 65-74 and those 75 and up – a whopping 80% increase in each category.  By 2016, 6.1% of the U.S. labor force will be age 65 and older, compared with only 3.6% in 2006.

 This trend leads to a new take on workplace diversity– age diversity.  Today’s workforce spans four generations: Traditionalists (born before 1946); Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964); Generation Xers (born 1965-1981); and Millennials (Born 1982-2000).   As mature adults remain employed, we increasingly need to understand the strengths and challenges inherent in multigenerational workplaces, and find ways to leverage age diversity. 

The popular press paints a picture of generational divide at work.  Mature workers (Traditionalists and Baby Boomers) are portrayed as loyal and hardworking, but dinosaurs when it comes to innovation and technology.  Younger employees (Generation Xers and Millennials) are viewed as innovative, but disrespectful, lazy, and egocentric.  Taken at face value, these stereotypes can lead to conflict and turmoil in the workplace.

The reality, according to research, is that generations are different in some ways, but similar in many more.  More gap than chasm, generational differences have subtle impact, not the dramatic conflict portrayed in the popular press.  Research by Jennifer Deal, author of Retiring the Generation Gap, points to the similarities between generations.   Workers of all generations will need to be sensitive to differing perspectives across age cohorts, but also find ways to connect. 

Here are some tips on bridging differences and building on commonalities across the generations.

  • Rethink what loyalty means.  Mature workers value company loyalty, and often view younger workers as lacking company allegiance. Lynne Lancaster, expert on generational differences, points out that Generation Xers are loyal, but to a project, a boss, or a team, not necessarily a company.  Loyalty is expressed differently, and needs to be valued and understood through this lens.
  • Understand core values.  Generational groups share common core values, especially when it comes to family. Young workers are more interested in results than face time, and value balance. Flexibility, whether to care for young children, aging parents, or to pursue adventure is of value to all generations.
  • Expand communication approaches.  Members of the Millennial generation view technology as essential to their lives.  They rely extensively on electronic methods of communication.  Strengthen communication through technology AND direct communication.
  • Foster respect, and respect differences.  All employees crave respect, but the way it is expressed can differ.  According to Jennifer Deal, mature workers feel respected when their opinions have weight.  Younger workers want to be heard and respected for their talent and ideas.

Age diversity is a reality in today’s workplace, and will only increase in the future.  Transferring knowledge across generations will depend on building relationships and communication approaches that work for all employee groups.  Workers of all ages add tremendous value to our organizations, and will be important components in the diverse workforce of the future.

Resources: 

United States Department of Labor, July 2008: http://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2008/older_workers/

Deal, Jennifer (2006).  Retiring the generation gap: How employees young and old can find common ground.

Lancaster, Lynne C., & Stillman, David (2003).  When generations collide.

Parts of this article were originally published on the Minnesota Career Development Association website, November 16, 2009, http://mcda.net/news/bridging-the-generational-gap-in-the-workplace/

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