Generational Diversity & Ageism in the Workplace

Despite the seemingly inclusive modern-day work environment, ageism is still a common occurrence in the workplace. Older workers are living longer than any previous generation, while many young people find themselves working with people twice their age. In companies with staff members of varying ages, mixed-age teams often face challenges trying to agree on strategy or project goals. This article aims to improve your or your employees’ ability to work with people from different generations, recognize ageism in the workplace, and prevent yourself from falling victim to age discrimination.

Working with People from Different Generations

With up to four generations working alongside each other, it may be difficult to cultivate inclusiveness and collaboration. The first step in bridging the generational gap at work is understanding how people of different ages think and behave. Below is a list of the four generations most frequently encountered in today’s workplace with a broad description of their personalities and attributes:

1. Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Family oriented individuals who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, multiple assassinations, the McCarthy hearings, Woodstock, Beatlemania, and the moon landing. Known for their work ethic, they seek meaning and balance, value financial security, are motivated by position and power but are resistant to change. They enjoy face-to-face interaction and prefer in-person work meetings, followed by telephone calls. They like to see printed copies of company manuals instead of looking at soft documents on a computer screen. They believe that working more hours equals better performance and are often found in positions of power, running organizations.

When engaging with Baby Boomers at work, it’s best to meet them in person, acknowledge their accomplishments, show interest in their professional activities, and encourage their growth through titles and authority commensurate with their responsibility. Boomers appreciate opportunities to mentor younger generations by sharing their experiences and transferring their knowledge within your company, thus building the skill sets of other employees. They enjoy networking with colleagues and are well suited for attending conferences and participating in professional associations. Boomers also enjoy expanding their abilities and participating in projects that can gain them recognition and that can make a difference within the organization. But most importantly, they like to be involved in transparent and democratic decision making. Many baby boomers have postponed their retirement; due to economic uncertainty, they cannot afford to retire. They may also feel that their lives may be less fulfilling without their work. Therefore, they are motivated by active retirement or flexible, part time work arrangements that provide short-term financial rewards and long-term financial security. Boomers are motivated by having equity, retirement plans, 401k plans, and pensions.

2. Generation X (1965-1978)

Latchkey kids, often divorced, remarried or single parents. They believe in independence and leadership through competence. They prefer to communicate by email and text messages and dislike meetings that take up time. They are goal oriented, self-reliant individuals who appreciate work/life balance, want to be challenged and receive feedback but act as free agents rather than company loyalists. They need to be recognized for their creative and entrepreneurial abilities and independent spirit, enjoy opportunities for growth but hate to receive negative feedback, and do not take kindly to being micromanaged. Flexibility and work/life balance are critical to this generation. Now in their 40s and 50s, Gen Xers make up a large portion of the knowledgeable and skilled workforce. They are dependable and frequently tapped for project management roles. They are expected to remain on staff for the next few decades as future managers and leaders within their companies. When a Baby Boomer retires, it is expected that a Gen Xer will fill that role. They are motivated by company culture and opportunities for personal growth. Engaging them in leadership programs and expertise/leadership development opportunities demonstrates their importance to the company and encourages them to perform at a higher level. Because Gen Xers value a work-life balance, they appreciate the ability to work from home, flexible work schedules, and time off. While some kind of recognition at work motivates all generations, Gen Xers respond better to positive feedback during a one-on-one session instead of being presented with an award in front of the entire company.

3. Millennials/Generation Y (1979-1993)

As the children of helicopter parents who are used to praise from their parents and teachers, millennials have come to expect evaluations of their work to be based on the outcomes they produce rather than their age, experience, or length of tenure. Millennials value continuous feedback on their performance and want to feel valued. They are tech savvy and globally conscious. They prefer to communicate via IM apps, Social Media, or text message. They require quick access to information, fear boredom more than anything else, seek meaningful work and working hours that simultaneously support career growth and time for family and personal interests. They loathe long in-person meetings and prefer to use Groups, Teams, or Zoom. They enjoy working remotely and value having various races, ethnicities, and religions in their workplace. A hardworking Millennial will be both success-driven and value a healthy work-life balance. To support this balance, these employees respond best to motivation in the form of a financial reward or paid time off. They thrive on acknowledgement and encouraging language, which they prefer to receive via email with higher-ups copied in.

4. Generation Z (1994-2007)

The children of stealth moms and multigenerational households, tech driven and tech dependent, social media savvy, globally conscious, connected, smart and witty. They prefer to communicate via FaceTime and Snapchat but will answer text messages. At work, they seek offers that allow “side hustles” and value mentor programs and volunteer opportunities. They consider race, ethnicity, and gender equality paramount attributes of an ideal workplace and enjoy working with like-minded individuals who share similar goals and values. While Gen Zers do not yet make up a considerable portion of the workforce, supervisors will soon need to understand how to motivate this unique group of their staff. Gen Zers are self-motivated, work hard, and expect a lot in return. Their dependence on digital tools and constant need for real-time updates on just about everything may seem to blur the lines between their work and personal lives, yet Gen Zers value flexibility and expect technology to be integrated into their work setting. Contrary to the assumption that their technology dependence takes away from their social skills, Gen Zers also thrive on personal interaction. They expect and respond best to regular feedback from their supervisors as opposed to annual reviews. They need structure and predictability, seek out mentors actively, and expect their managers to provide ongoing training and a goal driven plan for their professional development. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers make good candidates for Gen Z mentors.

Understanding Generational Differences

Understanding and respecting the differences between generations helps us appreciate different work styles and overcome communication challenges between members of different generations. To work together, one should get to know their co-workers and acknowledge what each person brings to the table. Regardless of which generation workers belong, they all desire to 1) be respected, 2) feel valued, 3) make a difference, and 4) receive feedback. Appreciating these commonalities while simultaneously understanding the perspective of others can transform work relationships.

When HR has a clear understanding of what workers value, it is easier to motivate, encourage, and retain them as active and productive team members. Successful multi-generational teams are frequently comprised of individuals with different strengths. For example, a baby boomer could mentor a team of experienced Millennials, who in turn may be supported by tech savvy Gen Zers. Mentoring can also be set up the other way around, with a younger person assisting an older team member with a technical issue. Managers should strive to assign generationally diverse team members with appropriate workloads across projects in order to facilitate the development of new ideas and improve overall work ethic.

Ageism in the Workplace

When there are many different generations in the workplace, there is a real risk of conflict, misunderstanding and discrimination. Often times, age discrimination can go completely unnoticed and does not only affect older workers. It cuts both ways and often targets the young. Even the most forward-thinking company can experience ageism. Here are a few signs of age discrimination to look out for in the workplace:

•           Learning opportunities offered to younger but not older employees.

•           Being passed over for challenging assignments.

•           Being left out of meetings and activities.

•           Hearing comments about one’s age (young or old).

•           Not being given time off for family commitments to employees without children.

•           Biased remarks about age being a potential advantage or disadvantage in the workplace.

•           Being passed over for promotions despite high individual performance.

Even benign behaviors might seem like age discrimination to certain employees. Workers have a tendency to form into groups with people they perceive to be like them, and this tendency can make members of a different generation feel threatened by a lack of inclusion.

To overcome ageism in the workplace you can take the following steps:

•            Acknowledge that ageism may be occurring.

•           Articulate areas of concern to help your company adjust HR practices.

•           Attend training initiatives that challenge stereotyping.

•           Invest in your continued education and personal development.

•           Stay up to speed with new technology trends and industry standards.

•           Stay open to and learn about views of different generations.

•           Find a mentor and work together to develop personal and career goals.

•           Fight bias and stereotypes in the workplace.

•           Help aging professionals to embrace changes at work.

•           Share with younger or older colleagues your industry, institutional and technological knowledge.

•           Avoid discussing your age at work and remain professional.

•           Cultivate growth-oriented mindsets and positive attitude towards colleagues of all ages.

Successful multigenerational workplace relationships are based on recognition of workers’ abilities regardless of age. The best way to prevent falling victim to ageism is to stay on top of your mental game by following the news, using social media and setting concrete career goals. Regardless of age, regular resume and LinkedIn profile updates and staying in step with current technology are a must for success in the workplace. Attitude also helps with overcoming ageism –appreciation of experience, wisdom, knowledge and energy of others helps with motivation and staying positive.


TV Shows for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to Watch:

If you fall in the Baby Boomer or Gen X category, below is a list of radical TV shows that challenge old stereotypes, grapple with important issues, and will help you stay in step with your Gen Y and Z colleagues:

  1. Sex Education is a comedy about growing up with a sex-therapist mother. It delves deep into adolescent sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues.
  2. Euphoria takes the drama of teen relationships to frightening new depths. Dealing with complex social norms, sexuality, queerness, abuse and addiction, it highlights the increasing strangeness of the world in which children grow up today. Equal parts splendor and cringe, this provocative series displays the complexity of today’s journey of self-discovery. Warning: Euphoria is not for the faint of heart.
  3. Pose shines light on the Black and Latino LGBTQ community in the middle of the HIV/AIDS crisis, bringing to light past challenges to the survival of LGBTQ communities.
  4. Billions explores issues of power and work dynamics within a group of successful hedge fund and finance professionals. It also features one of the first nonbinary characters represented on television.
  5. The modern version of  Margaret Atwood’s novel, the Handmaid’s Tale explores threats to women’s rights well beyond the original dystopia’s limits.
  6. Normal People is one of the best modern day portrayals of issues facing high school and college students. Following journeys of self-discovery by female and male characters, this show provoked great cultural dialogue on social standing and communication challenges facing young adults in Europe.
  7. Grey’s Anatomy  one of the longest-running scripted primetime shows about the busy lives of surgical interns, residents and seasoned doctors and their complex personal and professional relationships.

Movies For Gen Y and Zers to Watch:

If you fall in the Gen Y and Z category, below are two list of films that defined the culture of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Watching them will give you insight into the tastes and norms of your older colleagues.

Films about Baby Bommer Generation

  1. The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, premiered in 1967 and was a huge hit among Baby Boomers, some of whom were just coming of age.
  2. Easy Rider is a 1969 metaphor for the hippie generation, embracing the themes of anti-establishment and counterculture sentiments and free living.
  3. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange showcased violence and horror in order to highlight society’s disorder and promote goodness done through free will.
  4. The Godfather became a cultural phenomenon in 1972 and is still considered one of the best films ever made.
  5. Jaws created the term “summer blockbuster” in 1975 and scared audiences around the country away from the ocean.
  6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 became a portrait of the repressive world Baby Boomers lived in during the Vietnam draft.
  7. Raging Bull (1980) is arguably Martin Scorsese’s finest film, with a remarkable performance by Robert De Niro. It is a masterclass in pain inflicted on oneself and one’s loved ones (as well as one’s opponents), with exemplary use of pop, opera and the black-and-white photography.

Films about Generation X

  1. Do the Right Thing in 1989 was Spike Lee’s critical and commercial breakthrough. It examines racism and ranks among the most socially provocative films ever released by a Hollywood studio.
  2. In 1991, Boyz n the Hood introduced the world to the hard times and hard living of Southern California, particularly South Central Los Angeles and nearby Compton, during the 1980s and ’90s.
  3. Blade Runner, the 1992 director’s cut, is a neo-noir/sci-fi masterpiece. It offers a dystopian vision of the future where a machine becomes a man by quoting poetry in the rain as he dies. It changes the way the world looked and became the definition of the cyberpunk movement.
  4. Reality Bites is perhaps the best representation of Gen X’s perpetual question, What’s next? It follows a recent college graduate trying to find their place in life professionally, personally, and emotionally.
  5. Clueless in 1995 popularized overachievement and materialism. I wouldn’t say it popularized overachievement per say, although it definitely portrayed materialism and a sort of late-90s capitalist excess. 
  6. Trainspotting in 1996 became one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s. It is British in sensibility but plays like an American film: this energetic portrayal of miserably vile friends in need, struggling to survive and find purpose in life despite drug abuse, has a particularly fond place in the hearts of certain Gen Xers.
  7. Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, was a massive hit in 1999. It is the equivalent of The Graduate for Gen Xers. It is a social commentary on consumerist culture, coming from an everyman, who travels on a path to enlightenment through denial and destruction of everyone and everything around him.

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