Have you ever been in a conversation with someone with whom you had absolutely nothing in common? The conversation was probably stumbling, awkward, filled with gaps. The fact is, it’s difficult to communicate with others when we don’t have any similar interests. However, when your coworkers are the people with whom you lack commonalities, more than simple conversations are impaired; it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve even the most basic of tasks.
This problem is especially prevalent with age diversity in the workplace. Oftentimes, those from different generations view the other as useless: either their knowledge is outdated or they are too lazy to achieve quality work. Such a view can lead to a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of disrespect and misunderstanding among generations.
Our most recent podcast episode of HR Insiders discussed exactly this issue with the help of Angie Mills, an HR professional at a quickly-growing company and author of the book Run For Your Life.
Angie outlined some general information about the four different age groups currently in the workforce:
“The silent generation, also known as builders, are people who were born between 1927 and 1945. Most of those people are retired now, but there is still a small percentage in the workforce. Some common traits with them are, they value hard work, they’re very company-loyal, they respect authority, they like formal recognition, and they prefer hierarchy at work.
The next generation below them would be the baby boomers, which were people born between 1946 and 1964. Many of these workers are retired now or will be retiring soon, but they do still make up a substantial percentage of the workforce. Some common traits with them are: a strong work ethic – they can be called workaholics. They value teamwork and achievement, they live to work rather than work to live, and are very company loyal, but also somewhat inflexible and resistant to change. And they think that millennials are on the side of lazy and entitled.
Generation X or Gen X-ers are people born between ’65 and ’82. They have quite a ways to go until retirement and make up a major chunk of the workforce. Some common traits: they aim for work-life balance, have a lack of company loyalty, like ongoing feedback, embrace change, and prefer informality, prefer working independently rather than in teams.
And millennials, also known as Generation Z or Gen Z, are people born between 1983 in 2001 and they make up a pretty big part of the workforce already. Some common traits with them would be that they are immersed in social media. They’re globally conscious, they prefer meaningful work. They like workplace flexibility. They’re connected basically 24/7 and they plan to change jobs every two to four years or so.”
Because each generation grew up in such a different era – largely with different values as well as technology – it’s difficult for them to relate to each other. Younger generations especially tend to think of older generations as obsolete, without offering anything new to bring to the table. As Angie puts it, “We all, when we were younger, thought that we knew everything and we didn’t need the older generation or the older adults in our lives…We felt like we didn’t really care what they had to say or what they thought about things because we knew it all.”
Regardless of a person’s current age, his experiences are valuable. As Angie so aptly explains, “You want people to respect you at your current age and place in life… but you need to also offer that same respect back to other people. You can’t just say, ‘My way of thinking or my way of doing it is the only way.’”
So many companies nowadays seem to have an ‘in with the new, out with the old’ mentality. They want the most recent college grads with the most up-to-date technological skills, and that often means not having the space for older workers. While it’s excellent to bring in young hires, there’s also more at stake. Legally, employees over the age of 40 are a protected class under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA). As Angie explains, “Nobody’s really talking about making sure that we have age diversity in the workforce… [Discrimination against] age diversity is like a secret that exists that nobody wants to talk about.”
One of the best ways to increase inter-generational diversity is by offering a mentor program within the workplace. Angie elaborates: “It’s helpful if you can assign the more experienced workers as mentors to the newer workers. In every company, it’s going to be different depending on what you do, but almost always having a mentor from the more experienced generation coach and help along a newer member in the workforce can be really helpful.” Such a mentor program works to show both older and younger generations that the contributions of their counterparts are valuable, and regardless of their current base of knowledge, they still have a lot to learn from other generations.
To reach out to Angie with questions or ideas on the subject of inter-generational diversity in the workplace, feel free to shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about this topic, check out our HR Insiders podcast, available on Soundcloud and iTunes.