In an era of inclusivity and diversity, ageism is growing as one of the new challenges that businesses face. Ageism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.”
A recent study by Spherion found that roughly 25 per cent of employees make judgments about their co-workers’ and supervisors’ abilities to do their job based on their age alone. This rate is as high as 39 per cent among millennials, higher than any other generation. The research also identified that, in 2017, 69 per cent of younger workers lack the business and life experience required for leadership positions. As a business leader in my early 50s, I see and feel the impact of age, expectations and management styles, and I’m regularly challenged to manage issues and differences across the age spectrum in the workplace.
While millennials often have greater tech skills, having grown up with devices in their hands and easily adapting to changing technologies, boomers and Gen Ys are technically savvy, often thanks to the teachings of the youth in their workplace. However, what more-seasoned generations bring to the boardroom table is life and business wisdom, and the resiliency to weather the unprecedented pace of change. This interesting balancing act was never more apparent than at the recent 2018 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference.
An annual event featuring content in the unique and converging interactive, film and music industries, this year’s SXSW added panels on the topic of ageism to its roster. The age range of attendees, both young and old, was broader than ever before. While there were discussions surrounding the #MeToo movement, there was a strong sentiment that we are on the precipice of the creation of an ageist hashtag that will raise awareness of the need for inclusivity and diversity at all ranges of the age spectrum. The challenge is managing both a generation that wants to race up the ladder, skipping rungs, with another that has climbed up rung-by-rung.
In both the SXSW discussions and current workplace discussions on the rise of ageism, some themes are predominant and worthy guideposts for managing leadership’s challenges and opportunities.
AGEISM IS NOT AGE SPECIFIC
Ageism is being experienced across the spectrum. Both demographics at either end claim they are misunderstood.
I recently watched my team evaluate a multitude of candidates for a position. There was a concern that “older” candidates were too experienced, while “younger” candidates lacked sufficient knowledge and “been there, done that”experience to provide the necessary confidence needed in the role.
We not only have to fill gaps with candidates that can fulfil the present job, but with an uncertain future, we need to find candidates who can roll with the punches. This is less about age and more about personality.
AMBITION AND DEVELOPMENT SPRINGS ETERNAL
The desire to grow, learn, explore and develop personally and professionally is common to every age. While quick to offer development plans for the younger generation, we are often remiss in ensuring our aging demographic remains sharp and motivated. As the population ages, development plans across all ages and stages of life and work need to be offered and implemented.
Leave your baggage and your ego at the door
While this cliché rings true across a broad range of situations, it is perhaps most apparent in business, particularly with millennials and boomers. Given the two groups often experience parallel age-range challenges at home (parents versus kids), sometimes the dynamic extends to the boardroom. The kitchen table and the boardroom table are not the same. There are very different expectations and accountabilities in the boardroom, where the groups are peers and partners. With increasing, fast-paced requirements placed on businesses, it takes an egoless team of minds to keep up, let alone grow sustainable businesses boasting a competitive advantage.
EXPERIENCE IS KEY
Honour the demands of the opportunity at hand and consider nimble work teams that shift as requirements shift. The selection of team members should be designed to meet the objectives and who best to deliver them. It could be argued that in understanding the adoption of new tech, a team that skews younger may provide more relevant results. However, as the opportunity commercializes, the project may need to transition to suit an older team who have likely experienced a multitude of business models.
In conclusion, there are yin/yang benefits to optimizing the age spectrum.
While not everyone may see this experience spectrum as clearly, I am immersed, both physically and mentally.
At one time, I worried about a glass ceiling; I now evaluate whether a glass floor exists, run by a younger generation who – in the adrenaline rush of the new – lose sight of the value of business experience, which can help to weather the highs and lows caused by “always new” and “always on.”
As I reflect on our own organization, I wonder if the generations within our company are as aware and respectful of the need for and benefits of age diversity. On one end of the experience spectrum, my team is predominantly composed of 20-to-30 year-olds who share the latest app, technology or new haunt on a daily basis. On the other end, a 76-year-old mentor who still comes to work every day and methodically evaluates the firm’s long-term business plans, oversees corporate governance and always adds a new idea or approach to any business or client challenge we share.
As the number of years we spend in the workplace evolves, it will be interesting to note – and participate in – in how different generations respect, leverage and learn from each other’s talent. It is the dawning of the age of experience, and both ends of the spectrum have much to offer.
Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.