A tour through a typical workplace is likely to show employees fresh out of school working alongside workers their parents’ age or older. Researchers have long taken note of the wave of Millennial workers—and lately the even younger Gen Z workers—finding their way in the world of work long populated by Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and even those choosing to work well past a common retirement age.
Researchers also have noted differences and tension between the age groups. Tension often takes the form of older workers worried about being pushed aside and younger workers feeling unappreciated despite their education and skills. Although the multigenerational workforce has always existed, it’s getting more noticeable as people in their 70s and beyond choose to stay employed and the Gen Zs, which the Pew Research Center defines as those born after 1997, begin to enter the workforce.
New research published by Dell Technologies takes a look at what employers need to consider as they continue to mix employees of all ages. Some 12,000 high school and college students from around the world were surveyed from August to September 2018 to find out their views on technology and careers. A few of the key findings included in a summary of the research show that Gen Zs:
Want to work with cutting-edge technology and share their knowledge;
Are confident of their tech skills but not sure of their workforce readiness; and
Are eager for human interaction.
Meaning for HR
When workers of different ages are thought of as being significantly different from one another, tension can prevent the different generations from learning from one another. But employers can reap the benefits of an age-diverse workforce if they develop an attitude that goes beyond age stereotypes.
Brad Federman, Chief Operating Officer of HR consultancy F&H Solutions Group, says it’s important to put research such as the Dell report into context.
“Generational differences studies are based on broad groups so the findings are relevant to broad groups, not to small groups and individuals,” Federman says. “What that means is that using the research for a broad-brush approach, such as marketing and building a brand across a large population, makes sense. Applying the research at an individual or small-group level may actually cause damage because at some point we are making assumptions about individuals; we are stereotyping.”
Federman says little research exists demonstrating any real difference in workplace attitudes across generations, and studies often contradict themselves because of differences in research methodologies. He says HR professionals need to focus on building relationships, rather than differences between age groups.
“Generational tension, meaning lacking respect for someone who is of a different generation, typically occurs because we have trained people to size others up based on perceived differences without even getting to know them,” Federman says. “Everyday people from different generations work together without incident.”
Federman says different generations actually have a great deal in common. “They relate to change, teamwork, why they stay or leave an organization, employee engagement, and more in the same or similar manner.”
Look for the Best, Regardless of Age
Federman says organizations need to retain and train the best employees, no matter the age. “Older workers are our historians,” he says. “They have a great deal of knowledge to share. Many older workers are fantastic employees that can mentor others in the organization.” Also, mentoring doesn’t have to go just one way. Often younger employees can help older employees master new innovations and technologies.
Arlene Donovan, an Executive Coach and Workforce Development Professional at Turning Point Coaching, agrees that older and younger employees can bring out the best in each other. While it’s great to have the insights of young workers fresh out of college, an organization also benefits from the experience older workers bring. She cites the example of a 66-year-old account executive she knows who has “a Rolodex that would make the best of the best weep.” He’s active (he runs 12 miles a day), healthy, and eager to keep contributing.
Donovan says employers need to look at the gifts and talents individuals bring to the organization and select the best candidate, regardless of age. And older workers have a lot to offer. For example, they often stick with an employer 5 or even 10 years, and they’re also not always chasing the next title or salary increase.
Donovan stresses that she doesn’t want to stereotype workers based on age, but often, it is the older workers who are “rich with knowledge” but still overlooked because of age.
Tips for Employers
Donovan has suggestions to help employers ensure they are getting the most from their employees, regardless of age:
Make sure job advertisements don’t discourage senior talent by using words and phrases that signal a bias in favor of younger employees.
Have younger employees shadow older workers so that the younger employees can learn strategies and techniques from the more experienced workers.
Cross-train employees. Having each person sit for 2 months in the seat of another worker will result in each worker gaining a greater appreciation for coworkers and make for a stronger team.
Bring in an executive, career, or life coach for employees to help them solve problems they experience in the workplace. Donovan says a neutral coach may help employees work out issues better than the services available in most employee assistance programs.
Make employee training and development go beyond the typical sexual harassment and other employment law sessions. Surveying employees about training that is of interest to them and offering it frequently can help both young and old succeed.