The most successful companies also tend to be the most diverse. But while we typically associate diversity in professional settings with gender and racial differences, this dedication to diversity should also include age.
Ageism is an often overlooked ill of today's world. But as the average lifespan continues to grow and retirement standards shift, today's businesses will need to manage a far more comprehensive range of ages in staff than ever before. While this presents unique challenges, it also offers incredible opportunities for cross-generational learning that can enrich your company's culture and outcomes.
Here, we'll take you through the basics of generational diversity in the workplace and what each generation brings to your company. Read on to learn how to achieve the possibilities of generational diversity and navigate the challenges of a workforce made up of people of all ages eligible to work.
What Is Generational Diversity?
Generational diversity refers to having a vast range of ages represented in the workplace. Sometimes, the concept measures workforce ages on a broad scale across many businesses and industries. Other times, company leaders discuss generational diversity on a localized level to examine the breakdown of generational representation within their organizations.
Now more than ever, workplaces are reckoning with the concept of generational diversity. Part of this is because there are more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 15 in Europe and North America for the first time in history. At this rate, more than half of the population in Western Europe will be over the age of 50 by 2030.
Why is this happening? This shift in population is mainly because people in high-income countries have longer life expectancies. With continuing health and medical advances, aging adults have a higher chance of living a longer life. With more years comes the ability, and often the necessity, to keep working into older adulthood.
In 1983, an amendment to social security policy in the United States gradually began to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67 over a period of 22 years. The Social Security Administration (SSA) also raised the retirement credit for people who work beyond their retirement age, encouraging people to remain in the workforce as long as they can.
This policy change is, in large part, a response to the increasing lifespan of Americans. So with many people in their 60s and even 70s active in the workplace and younger generations entering the workforce every year, businesses need to navigate a vast array of cultural and generational differences to lead a diverse staff.
Breaking Down the Generations
To better understand how to foster and benefit from generational diversity in the workplace, businesses first need to understand the differences in the dominant generations. Here's a breakdown of the generations represented in the workforce today.
Also called the Traditionalists, this group of people was born between 1925 and 1945. While the youngest of this crowd today is at least 80 years old, a handful of the Silent Generation is present in today's workforce.
Growing up far before the dawn of modern technology and the internet, this group values hard work and a slower pace. Living through the Great Depression and remembering the harsh reality of WWII shaped the Silent Generation into fiscally conservative, patriotic, and highly disciplined workers.
Much like the name suggests, the Baby Boomers represent the skyrocketing birth rates following WWII. Born between 1946 and 1964, this generation has earned a reputation of being stubborn and fear-driven. Some suggest that their resistance to change came from riding on the tailcoats of a horrific war.
But even with the bleak reality of the past informing their childhoods, Baby Boomers grew up in an age of optimism and economic growth. They saw the dawn of space exploration. Many Baby Boomers began careers at specific companies decades ago and remained there until retirement.
Reliability and stability are emblematic of this generation. Being raised before big tech, many Boomers prefer face-to-face conversations and an old-school professional culture that no longer exists today.
Gen X is an often-overlooked generation of people born between 1965 and 1980. Growing up in a struggling economy, with many parents working multiple jobs and even more single or divorced parents, Gen Xers value work-life balance and time with family. They witnessed the global shift from analogical to digital, making Gen X a highly adaptable generation.
In the workplace, Gen X is hardworking and dedicated. They are interested in personal growth and learning over high workplace positions.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2019 report, Millennials surpassed the Baby Boomers as the generation with the largest population in the U.S. In part, the difference in population resulted from the deaths in the Baby Boomer group. It also occurred with Millennial immigrants coming to the states, mainly for work opportunities. As such, the Millennial generation is represented most dominantly in the workforce at this point.
Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996, and they were the final generation to grow up before the dawn of the internet. That said, many of their younger, foundational years were still heavily influenced by technology and the fast rise of the internet age.
Millennials straddle the line between the way things were before and how they are now. Excellent modern-age communicators and collaborators with entrepreneurial spirits, they offer businesses the benefits of being tech-savvy and driven.
The youngest generation represented in the workforce today is Gen Z. Born between 1997 and 2013, Gen Z grew up with smartphones in their hands as members of an interconnected, global society. These employees are incredibly tech-savvy. What they may lack in years of experience, they make up for with innovative thinking, digital literacy, and a commitment to equity and inclusion.
Gen Z values financial security, having grown up in the wake of 9/11 and a major economic recession. However, they also value equality and hold corporations accountable. For them, the massive social movements of recent decades have inspired a low tolerance of inequality and discriminatory behavior in the workplace.
Benefits of Generational Differences in the Workplace
There are numerous benefits to this new normal that make welcoming generational diversity in the workplace worthwhile.
Each group has unique knowledge and skills drawn from various life experiences of their generation. Similarly, each also has areas where they can use some additional support. By building an intergenerational team, you can benefit from a diverse knowledge base that empowers individuals to educate and learn from each other.
For example, Baby Boomers and those of the Silent Generation may struggle to adapt to advances in technology. If you have Millennials and Gen Zers on staff, they can help their predecessors acclimate to new tech.
Likewise, older generations have skills of debate and in-person communication that many younger people lack in this digital age. With a generationally diverse workplace, you have a well-rounded community that can strengthen individuals through knowledge-sharing.
Different perspectives that come with different life experiences can also greatly benefit your workplace. If everyone looks at a problem the same way, you'll only ever get a certain kind of answer.
With generational diversity, there can be a deeper discourse that pulls from a wide array of life experiences to find solutions creatively.
Future-Proof your Workplace
As older employees move towards retirement, it is beneficial to have younger people on staff knowledgeable of your organization and committed to its success. More senior employees can act as mentors to help younger workers rise into leadership roles.
In this way, diversifying your company's population is a proactive step toward securing its future. It can ensure smooth transitions in roles as time goes on.
Better Customer Experience
Unless your company targets only a specific age group, the people you serve are likely of a vastly diverse age range. As such, your company should mirror that!
In doing so, you'll have people on staff who understand your entire customer base's unique needs and frustrations, and your company can better respond to those needs.
Challenges of Generational Diversity in the Workplace
Before you can begin to benefit from the advantages of a generationally diverse workplace, you may have to work through some challenges. Here are a few to prepare for:
If your goal is a workplace with a wide age range for staff, it can be tricky to recruit employees. What works for one generation may not be suitable for the next.
The challenge comes from the fact that job seekers from different generations approach the job search very differently. Younger generations are accustomed to searching for and applying for jobs online. However, this can be a challenge for older workers who grew up in a world of paper applications and face-to-face interviews.
If your company lists open jobs exclusively on social media and online job boards, there's a good chance you're unintentionally excluding older generations. Consider diversifying your outreach by including ads in newspapers or local radio stations.
Another way to make job listings more approachable to a broader age base is to remove birthdate or graduation date requirements. Paying attention to ageist language in job posts also helps ensure equitable practices in your workplace by eliminating opportunities for unconscious bias.
Not all generations understand each other. Because they grew up in starkly contrasting economic, social, and technological climates, it can be challenging for old and young people to see eye to eye. But compassion, empathy, and a willingness to understand each other are essential if your intergenerational company is to succeed.
Younger generations may push for changes that feel radical to older generations accustomed to doing things a certain way.
Likewise, it can sometimes be challenging for a more senior employee to report to a boss who is younger than they are.
While there is no easy way around these challenges, they are opportunities to dig deeper and learn from each other's experiences and perspectives. Your company's HR team plays a critical role in mediating intergenerational conflicts. They can equip employees with training and conflict resolution tactics to make the most of generational diversity.
Diverse Working Styles and Preferences
Baby Boomers may prefer in-person meetings over video chats. Gen Zers view social media as a legitimate form of communication. The “hardcopy versus digital” debate is a big one that rages on between these generational extremes.
If you're going to have a successful organization that embraces generational diversity, you need to lean into these differences. Remain open to meeting people where they are and allow multiple ways of accomplishing tasks so that everyone can thrive in your workplace regardless of age.
While generational diversity offers many benefits to your company, it can also be time-consuming to manage effectively to keep your employees happy and your business running well. Why not lessen the overall HR workload to free up some time?