When you think of promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, you may first think about issues surrounding race and gender. But it’s also essential to address issues of age. By 2022, almost 35% of the workforce will be over 52 years old, many of those workers Baby Boomers. But the workforce will also contain Generation Xers, a huge swath of Baby Boomers and Generation Zers.
Generational issues in the workplace can easily cause tension. But by fostering an inclusive and supportive atmosphere, you can reduce ageism in the workplace and help your employees of all ages learn from each other instead.
What Is Age Discrimination?
Age discrimination occurs when employers make assumptions about the diminished skills and efficiency of older workers instead of taking each individual’s abilities into account.
Legislation is currently in place to help prevent age discrimination in the workplace. Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, in 1967 to prohibit age discrimination and promote the employment of older generations. ADEA took effect in June 1968. It requires that employees consider each worker as an individual rather than relying on assumptions about older workers as a class.
The Department of Labor report that led to ADEA, the Wirtz report, found that many employers believed age correlated with ability and often denied employment opportunities to workers in their forties and beyond without taking individual skills into account. Half of all employers used age as a justification for refusing to hire workers aged 45 and up.
Despite the passage of ADEA, older workers still report active age discrimination in the workplace. In an AARP survey of almost 4,000 adults over 45, 61% said they had seen or experienced age discrimination at work. And 38% percent believe age discrimination is “very common” in the workplace.
Of those respondents who said they had experienced age discrimination, 25% had heard negative remarks about their age. Additionally, 16% reported not getting hired because of their age, while 12% reported having been passed over for a promotion because of their age.
Reverse ageism in the workplace occurs when employers and fellow employees evaluate younger employees based on their age rather than their abilities.
Multiple Generations in the Workplace
Currently, four generations make up most of the workforce. First is the Silent Generation, born from about 1928 to 1945 and currently aged about 74 to 91. Next are the Baby Boomers, born from about 1946 to 1964 and aged about 55 to 73. Next is Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980 and aged about 39 to 54. Then, we have the Millennials, born from about 1981 to about 1996 and aged about 23 to 38. There’s also the post-Millennial generation, Generation Z, whose oldest members were born in 1997 and have just begun entering the workforce.
It’s important to consider the effect of different generational values in the workplace to understand what employees of different generations need and how they can best work together.
The Silent Generation
The Silent Generation grew up during the Depression and World War II, though many of its members were too young to see combat. They did serve in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, so members of this generation are dramatically more likely than younger generations to be veterans. When members of the Silent Generation made up a large portion of the workforce, men were 10 times more likely to be veterans than working men are today. Only 4% of Millennial men are veterans, compared to 47% of men from the Silent Generation.
Member of the Silent Generation spent much of their adulthood and middle age in relatively prosperous times, the postwar years in which it was easier to afford a house, a car and a college education than it is today.
Perhaps because of their military service, or perhaps because of growing up in a society where class hierarchies and their markers — such as buying homes and cars — were relatively important, members of the Silent Generation may prefer a more hierarchical workplace with clear chains of authority. They may also prefer formal terms of address such as Mr., Mrs., Sir and Ma’am. Because they grew up in lean decades, they may also be extremely self-sufficient and able to do a lot with a little.
And of course, the Silent Generation grew up with much less technology than younger generations and may prefer to communicate via nontechnological means.
This huge generation, born in the prosperous years after World War II, makes up a large percentage of today’s employees. The majority of Baby Boomers are still in the workforce, and the oldest Baby Boomers are remaining in the workforce at rates not seen for people their age in over half a century.
Some Baby Boomers are veterans of the Vietnam War, whereas others participated in protests or experimented with hippie culture. Many Baby Boomers acquired the traditional markers of success such as homeownership, though many saw their savings diminished during the most recent recession.
The Baby Boomer generation also saw a break with tradition in the number of women it sent to the workforce. Among the Silent Generation, only 40% of women worked outside the home, but a majority of this generation’s women worked outside the home as early as 1985, when 66% of Baby Boomer women were part of the workforce.
Often, career and career loyalty are of paramount importance to Baby Boomers and form part of their personal identities. Older workers such as those in Baby Boomer generation tend to stay in one job longer than younger generations. In the AARP study above, over one-third of the respondents had been in their current job for more than 15 years. For this reason, Baby Boomers may feel a personal investment in their work and expect others to feel the same way.
Generation X is generally more highly educated and more diverse than the Baby Boomer generation, though less so than Millennials. This generation is also the first generation to see women catch up to and surpass men in terms of the number of bachelor’s degrees earned — its women were three percentage points more likely to have one.
Generation X is the first generation in which a college degree is typically a requirement for financial success — but this generation has also seen the costs of college soar. In 1977, only a third of students borrowed for college. But by 2000, about two-thirds did. Generation X also holds the most mortgage debt of any generation.
For these reasons, many Generation Xers may feel skeptical about the American dream. They may have come to believe that working long hours doesn’t necessarily pay off in the long run. They may also have Baby Boomer parents who threw themselves into work and whose marriages ended in divorce — U.S. divorce rates peaked in the ’70s and early ’80s and have since fallen. So Generation Xers may desire a workplace that allows for a healthy work-life balance.
Millennials are a highly educated generation in the sense that they have pursued college degrees at a higher rate than the generations before them. In 2002, the percentage of 18- to 20-year-olds who were no longer in high school and had entered college was 53%. The same number for Generation Xers in 1986 was only 44%.
Millennial women have also outpaced men in their educational attainments. More Millennial women than men have a bachelor’s degree. As of 2017, Millennial women were seven percentage points more likely than Millennial men to have earned a bachelor’s degree. And among Millennials, the majority of women, 71%, work outside the home.
The Millennial generation is also the most racially diverse of the four generations. In a comparison of each of the four generations at ages 21-36, U.S. Millennials were only 56% white, compared with 62% of Generation Xers, 75% of early Baby Boomers and 84% of the Silent Generation.
Millennials are also more likely than earlier generations to be unmarried. About 57% of Millennials have never been married. By contrast, when the Silent Generation was the same age that Millennials are now, only 17% had bever been married. Unmarried Millennials report that they are not financially ready for marriage, that they have not yet met the right person or that they are not ready to settle down into married life.
Impact of Millennials in the Workforce
Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce, having surpassed both Baby Boomers and Generation Xers in 2016. Of employees in the U.S. workforce, 35% are now Millennials.
Ageism against Millennials is a real issue in many workplaces. Some employees of older generations may engage in “Millennial bashing,” believing — and sometimes arguing — that Millennials are job hoppers, lazy, addicted to technology, unmotivated, entitled, hard to train and lacking in social skills.
It’s become a commonplace to say that Millennials lack loyalty to their jobs and job-hop with incredible frequency. But a recent Pew Research study found that Millennials don’t job-hop with any greater frequency than Generation X did before them. In 2016, 22% of Millennials in the workforce had been with the same employer for five years or more — that number for Generation X in 2000 was 21.6%. And in 2000, the number of Generation Xers who had been with the same company for 13 months was 59.9% — whereas that same number for Millennials in 2016 was 63.4%.
The financial situation for Millennials is also grimmer than it was for previous generations. Exorbitant college tuition and crushing student loan debt, along with high housing prices, make it difficult for many Millennials to save for things like buying their own homes. Many older Millennials also came into the workforce during the recession, when good jobs were scarce. So when Millennials change jobs with great frequency, it’s often because of the financial pressures they face.
And, of course, Millennials grew up with access to an unprecedented wealth of technology and instant communication. It’s common for Millennials to value frequent communication on a variety of media with the people who matter to them.
Perhaps because working for meager wages does not fulfill them personally or provide them with financial security, many Millennials value experiences rather than things. Forbes reports that 65% of Millennials are currently saving money to travel, a much higher number than in previous generations.
Because of their high level of education, Millennials are likely to value jobs that will make use of their minds and stimulate them intellectually. Because they tend to focus on their goals first and their families second, they may also value flexible jobs that allow them to travel and seek out new experiences before settling down.
What Different Generations in the Workplace Can Learn From One Another
Generational differences in the workplace can offer distinct benefits. On the one hand, younger generations, often accused of self-centeredness, can learn discipline and self-reliance from members of the Silent Generation. And they can learn a focus on and dedication to work from the Baby Boomers.
On the other hand, the older generations can learn from the younger ones as well. Younger generations like Generation X and the Millennials can model a healthy work-life balance for older ones. They can also share how their wealth of different experiences have enriched their lives.
How to Create an Age-Friendly Workplace
Managing multiple generations in the workplace is a crucial skill. Fortunately, employers can take steps to combat ageism in the workplace.
- Use a variety of communication strategies: Younger generations may prefer to receive information in an email, whereas older generations may prefer a face-to-face conversation. Tailor your approach to what will work best for each individual.
- Use a variety of training styles: Younger employees may prefer to learn information in a written form supplemented by personal feedback, whereas older generations may prefer a more hands-on approach. Challenge your employees to step out of their comfort zones while also taking time to figure out what learning styles they prefer.
- Provide mentoring opportunities: If older and younger employees do not interact with one another one on one, they may see each other in terms of generalizations and stereotypes. Mentoring opportunities allow them to get to know one another’s strengths as individuals, along with fostering professional growth.
- Present a balanced, inclusive image: If all the company photos on your website are of younger workers, or if you offer games and recreation as perks, older workers who are used to a more traditional workplace may feel excluded from the office vibe. Be sure to cultivate an image and atmosphere of inclusion.
- State your values explicitly: Be clear about the fact that everyone in your office is valued, no matter how young or old. If you hear gossip about lazy 20-somethings or technologically clueless grandmas, politely but firmly shut it down. Model the values of inclusivity in what you do and also in what you say.
Combat Ageism in Your Workplace
Having multiple generations represented in your workplace offers many benefits. It allows for cross-generational collaboration and mentorship, and it allows different generations to grow personally and professionally by learning from each other. Incorporating a diverse range of ages into your workplace also demonstrates your values of inclusivity to the public and creates a positive brand image.
It’s also important to create a harmonious work environment before the next generation enters the mix. In a few years, Generation Z will enter the workforce, likely bringing yet another set of values with them. If the current mix of generations can get along well, they will make it much easier for this newest generation to transition into the workforce.
To help combat ageism in the workplace, consider turning to a company like Reaction Search International that specializes in the fair and balanced recruitment of qualified candidates. To get help with solutions to ageism in the workplace, contact us today.