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What Is Generational Diversity? How to Embrace It & Avoid Ageism

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This post is part of a series called How to Improve Diversity in Your Business (Essential Guide).
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If you’re at work as you’re reading this, take a look around you. Are your colleagues or employees about the same age as you, or is there a big variation?

It may not be something you’ve even noticed before. When we talk about diversity in the workplace, we tend to focus on things like race and gender. But age is another important dimension of diversity. Although some of the stereotypes about different generations are overblown, it’s true that people of different ages often bring very different and valuable perspectives and insights to the projects they work on.

Generational Diversity
Try not to let age be a barrier in your company. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

In today’s tutorial, we’ll take a look at generational diversity and why it’s important. We’ll define the term, and then we’ll look at some of the benefits of employing different generations in the workplace, as well as some of the challenges. Then you’ll get some practical tips on how to embrace generational diversity at your company and avoid ageism.

1. What Is Generational Diversity?

Generational diversity simply means having people of a wide range of different ages represented in the workplace.

Balancing the Generations

Ideally, your company should roughly reflect the composition of the overall population of your country or region. For example, here’s a chart from the U.S. Census Bureau showing the distribution of people of different ages in the U.S. Each bar represents the number of people of a certain age, and the scale is in millions.

US population by age
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

As you can see, there are slight bulges around the early 20s and early 50s, and the numbers start to tail off after 60. But generally, the profile is fairly flat for the working-age population, with little variation between the generations. So your workplace should have a similar profile, with no dramatic skewing towards particular age brackets.

It often helps to think of broader generations. This can be quite culturally specific, but here are some categories that are popular in the U.S. and other parts of the Western world:

  • The Silent Generation (born before 1945, so many are now retired)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)
  • Millennials (born after 1980)

As this article by the American Management Association points out, the generations actually have more in common than people tend to think, but the general characteristics are thought to be:

  • Baby Boomers value loyalty.
  • Gen X values work-life balance.
  • Millennials value innovation and change.

Try to get roughly equal representation of each generation. Of course, the correlation won’t be exact, particularly in small companies. But if there’s a big discrepancy, that’s something to be aware of. Some tech firms and startups, for example, have predominantly young workforces, while more traditional firms may have ageing workforces, with younger people underrepresented—particularly at the higher levels.

Ageism and Age Discrimination Laws

Many countries have introduced laws tackling age discrimination in recent years. For example, in the UK, age discrimination laws were passed in 2006, and since then, there have been thousands of employment tribunal claims every year, indicating that ageism remains a serious issue in the workplace. 

Age discrimination claims per year in the UK
Source: AgeDiscrimination.info

It’s important to understand that ageism works both ways—it can mean discrimination against either older or younger workers. If you’re treating people unfairly based on their age, you could fall foul of the law.

Payouts can run into the thousands, so it’s important for employers to know the law and avoid discrimination based on age. But on top of that, there are lots of benefits of having generational diversity in your business as well. We’ll look at those in the next section.

2. Benefits of Generational Diversity

As with other types of diversity, generational diversity can help your company perform better in many ways. Here are some of the highlights.

Better Innovation and Problem-Solving

I’m sure you’ve heard that saying, “Two heads are better than one.” When two people come together to solve a problem, they can pool their experiences and ideas to devise a better solution.

So, you can see why diverse teams tend to be better at problem-solving. Not only are there two or more heads, but those heads are also different. They've got different ideas, different perspectives, different life experiences. Check out this research from Northwestern University for more on the benefits of diversity for problem-solving.

People of different ages can bring very different viewpoints, particularly in this age of rapid technological progress. There’s a great benefit to bringing together people who spent most of their lives without the internet and those who’ve never known anything else—along with people like me who are somewhere in the middle.

Reflect Your Customers

Guess what? Unless your product is particularly age-specific, your potential customers will be spread across that broad age spectrum we saw earlier. So if you've got an age-diverse workforce, you’ll be better able to understand their needs and to serve them.

Picture a bunch of twenty-somethings trying to create an app that will appeal to those in their fifties, for example. Or a group of older employees trying to come up with something the “kids” will like.

You can conduct market research, of course, and ask your customers for feedback. But it’s more effective to have people on staff who can bring in the perspectives of different generations from the start.

Provide Learning Opportunities

Job training is great, but one of the best ways of helping your employees develop is by encouraging mentoring relationships, where one employee (usually more experienced) provides guidance to a colleague.

One literature review found that people being mentored experience faster career advancement, increased productivity, better time management, higher job satisfaction, and more. And the mentors themselves gained greater satisfaction and developed their coaching and management skills, among other benefits.

Having a mix of younger and older employees provides a perfect opportunity for mentoring to take place within the organization, facilitating the flow of knowledge and allowing people to learn and become better at their jobs.

Protect Yourself

As I mentioned earlier, thousands of employees bring age-discrimination cases against their employers every year. By taking generational diversity seriously, you’ll help to protect yourself from expensive payouts.

Many of the benefits of generational diversity are also linked to the benefits of diversity in general, so be sure to read the following article for more details.

3. Challenges of Generational Diversity

With all these benefits to having a diverse workforce, why is ageism still a problem? Here are some potential challenges you may experience when trying to achieve greater generational diversity.

Inter-Generational Conflict

Everything I said before about different ideas and different perspectives also has a flipside: it can generate conflict.

For example, when a younger employee questions a group of older employees about something they’ve been doing the same way for years, they may resent being challenged and see the questioner as arrogant. Or, conversely, if an older employee attempts to share some advice based on experience, younger employees may see it as an attempt to “pull rank”.

Sometimes, older employees can struggle with reporting to a younger boss, and it can also work the other way around. One study by the UK government found that 15% of respondents thought that having a 70-year-old boss would be "unacceptable", compared with 5% for having a 30-year-old boss.

Recruitment Difficulties

Sometimes, a lack of generational diversity comes about because companies tend to recruit from the same places. If they hire a lot of people straight from university, for example, they’ll end up with a younger workforce.

Problems may also come about because of the nature of the job. If it’s dependent on the very latest technologies, you may get predominantly younger applicants. If it requires a lot of experience, you may cut a lot of younger people out.

In those cases, recruiting with generational diversity in mind can be a challenge. But it’s still possible. There are plenty of older people who are tech-savvy, and there are plenty of younger people who've got skills that compensate for their relative lack of experience. You may just need to widen your net and search a little harder in some different places to land the right people.

Different Working Styles

Broadly speaking, workers from different generations aren’t as different as they’re often portrayed, but studies have found some differences in working style.

For example, older workers may be more comfortable with traditional working hours, whereas younger ones may prefer more flexibility. And there may be generational differences in everything from the way people communicate to the types of job benefits or office facilities they want.

One survey found that job candidates from Generation X are most likely to ask for:

  • higher pay (36%)
  • hiring bonus (29%)
  • higher job title (24%)

On the other hand, Millennials ask for:

  • training (40%)
  • job perks, such as free drinks or time off to volunteer (33%)
  • flexible work hours (23%)

If you’ve created an office environment and workplace policies based on appealing to a certain demographic, you may need to make changes to appeal more broadly.

4. How to Embrace Generational Diversity in the Workplace

If you’re ready to achieve greater generational diversity, here are some steps you can take.

Review Your Hiring Practices

If your age profile is skewed towards a particular age group and you want to change it, your hiring practices are the place to start.

Start with your job descriptions. You may unwittingly be excluding people based on the wording you use. For example, specifying 15 years of industry experience will automatically exclude a huge number of younger applicants. So, consider how much experience is really necessary to do the job well.

It can work the other way too—a UK police force was successfully sued for age discrimination because a particular job required applicants to obtain a law degree, which discriminated against those close to retirement who wouldn’t have time to qualify. 

Of course, you don’t need to remove all your job requirements. As long as they’re fair and reasonable for the job, you’ll be on solid legal footing. Just consider whether what you’re asking for is really necessary or not.

You may also need to review where you hire from and start looking in different places. If you primarily rely on referrals from existing employees, you may need to expand beyond those networks if you want to reach a more diverse set of applicants. And if you hire lots of people from university, for example, then consider targeting colleges with strong programs for mature students to achieve a better balance.

Don’t Let Age Be a Barrier

Once you’ve hired a diverse workforce, you want to retain those people. So, be sure to provide plenty of opportunities, regardless of age.

If you’re looking to promote someone to a very senior position, consider qualified younger candidates too, instead of overlooking them because of their age and relative inexperience. 

Older employees are often overlooked for promotions too, due to assumptions about what they're capable of, perceptions about being out of touch, fears that they’ll retire soon, and a lot of other unwarranted assumptions.

So, try not to let age be a barrier in your company. Look at all their other skills and experience and assess what they can bring to the role. If they’re good enough, they’re old enough (or young enough!).

Don’t Make Age-Based Assumptions

Newsflash: you don’t lose the ability to use technology when you pass the age of 50. There are plenty of older people who are more up-to-date with technology than their younger counterparts. So, never assume that someone needs to have something technical explained to them in patronising detail just because they've got a few grey hairs.

Similarly, don’t assume that your fresh-from-university employees know nothing at all. They may be new to the workforce, but they've got valid contributions to make. And guess what? They may not be Instagram-obsessed narcissists either.

In short, don’t make assumptions about what people know or who they are based on their age. Treat everyone with respect.

Watch Your Language

Ageism doesn't have to be deliberate or planned—sometimes it can be careless. For example, you might think you’re being light-hearted and affectionate when you refer to younger employees as “kids”, but they may receive it as demeaning and patronizing. Similarly, cut out any references to an older employee’s age, even if it’s not intended as an insult.

Watch out for the language you use in recruiting or other areas as well. People sometimes equate “young” with “dynamic” and “old” with “traditional”, which is not only false but can land firms in trouble. A UK bank was successfully sued for age discrimination after firing an employee and asking a recruiter to find a replacement with a “younger, more entrepreneurial profile.”

Ask People What They Want

As we saw in the last section, workers from different generations can have different needs and expectations. For example:

  • They may want different kinds of training.
  • They may value different job benefits, e.g. retirement plans vs. health insurance.
  • They may communicate differently.
  • They may have different expectations of working hours and flexibility.

However, the research in this area is mixed, and as we’ve just seen, it’s best not to make assumptions about individuals based on their age anyway. So instead of providing what you think people want, try asking them what they want. Run employee surveys or ask for informal feedback either directly or through HR or line managers. Then use the results to create new policies that work for everyone.

These things are good practice anyway, of course, but they’re particularly important when you’re working with people of different ages whose needs you may not be familiar with.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, you’ve learned all about generational diversity and how to embrace generational differences in the workplace. You’ve learned about ageism and how to avoid it, you’ve seen the benefits and challenges of generational diversity, and you’ve learned some practical ways to hire and retain a broader mix of older and younger employees at your own company.

You can start putting all this into practice today. And in the meantime, why not read some more of our articles on diversity and inclusion:

You can also find more articles in our full Envato Tuts+ series on diversity in the workplace.

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