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Mind the Generation Gap at Work

March 19, 2021 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

With gratitude to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung for his research on consciousness and the quotes within this article.

Difference and belonging are two words when placed in juxtaposition that seem to exist in stark contrast. How is it possible to be different and yet still belong? How does one move from feeling like an “outsider” to an “insider” with others who are different in a substantive way?

There's no doubt the world of work (and society at large) is experiencing a rebirth of diversity, equity and inclusion, and with good reason. It’s a space, and a moral dilemma, that we haven’t gotten right – yet. There is reason for optimism as the workplace dialogue shifts from its focus on policies and programs to include a focus on the “lived experience” of those with whom we work.

Today’s workforce includes the broadest range of generations ever seen, and like other areas of diversity that have been ignored, its day is rapidly approaching. Somehow, we’ve allowed ourselves to anchor on age in unproductive ways that fall short of our collective potential.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

A traditional resume chronicles time and employers, but falls woefully short on purpose, aspirations, potential and wisdom. Discounting one another on the basis of age can be based in faulty assumptions, unconscious bias, a lack of data or simply a mindset that devalues ages on both ends of the bell-shaped curve. The gig economy and our post-pandemic future of work will change both who does the work and how it gets done for decades to come.

Closing the digital divide should enable greater access to previously excluded talent. But in addition to access, we need a deliberate shift away from the fixed mindset of “you’re too young” or “you’re too old.” That's not only in talent acquisition, but also in how we interact with one another.

“Thinking is difficult. That’s why most people judge.”

Age-based stereotypes are decision shortcuts that at their core undervalue others. Whether a person is younger or older, making conclusions about someone’s potential performance, creativity, adaptability or commitment to success based on age is not only counterproductive, it's just plain invalid.

How can each of us think more inclusively across generations? One clear strategy relies on our “lived experiences.” As human-centered employee experience accelerates beyond productivity-centered employee engagement, we have yet another opportunity to set aside stereotypes and generate the shared experiences that connect us with one another.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

Michael S. North, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Stern School of Business, New York University
Dr. Michael S. North, assistant professor of management and organizations, Stern School of Business, New York University:

"Understanding age-based stereotypes is especially important as more older workers and generations co-exist than ever. However, ambiguities can arise from emphasizing numerical age alone. For example, older workers are simultaneously championed by employers for their loyalty and knowledge while also at greatest risk for age discrimination. Contradictions like these are common within a numerical age focus. Instead, considering workers’ GATE might be more useful:

  • Generation: specific birth cohort, producing formative events at specific time points
  • Age (life stage): chronological place in the lifespan, shaping health and non-work considerations (e.g. family obligations)
  • Tenure: work cohort, shaped by entering the organization at a certain time point
  • Experience: skill set, shaped over time by life and work events

Characterizing age as GATE resolves some of the aforementioned ambiguity. For instance, a high experience, high tenure 'older incumbent' in the same organization/career for decades faces different expectations than the 'older career switcher' starting their second act from scratch. Thinking about your own GATE can be adaptive, too, clarifying the aspects of your age identity that employers — and you, yourself — value the most."

Here are three practical tips to help mind the gap between generations:

1. Set aside age-based stereotypes about what people want from their careers. As life ebbs and flows, so do career preferences. The mix of considerations is far beyond positional power and compensation. Family demands, personal well-being, professional contribution, career growth, location and role flexibility are all factors that shift over time.

2. Expand your in-group beyond your own generation. Make the time to have meaningful conversations about different experiences. Build project teams with multigenerational talent. Seek perspectives and offer support to those of a different generation. In short, stop hanging out with people of only your generation.

3. Be purposeful about the identity you convey. Regardless of age, people are drawn to others who lift them up, appreciate their voice and respect their ideas. Approach your interactions with others with a growth mindset, believing you can learn from all those around, not just those in your own generation. Warmth and kindness transcend age and are underdeveloped in the world of work.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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