Diversity and inclusion efforts have rightfully been front and center this year as many firms have committed to fostering workplaces that better reflect the racial, gender, and identity diversity of the country. In that vein, companies looking to enhance their efforts should have another category on their radar: generational diversity. Today’s workforce is one of the most age-diverse in history, with five generations — Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and even the eldest members of Generation Z — all represented.
This generational mix reflects an evolution in the workplace, with not just more age groups represented, but also with more fluidity in the roles they play.
“Traditionally, members of an earlier generation have held more senior positions, but this is changing,” said Michele Lanza, SVP and Partner for Global Talent Attraction and Retention Strategies at communications firm Ketchum and founder of online career and recruitment site Work Wider. “Many employees are working longer at a variety of levels within the organization, [and] many organizations are seeing wider age ranges along different levels of responsibilities because they are discovering the benefits of having generational diversity.”
Cultivating a workforce that reflects the true breadth of the working population can have significant benefits. (It’s worth noting that age above 40 is one of the federally protected classes of employment, and discrimination on the basis of 40-plus age is prohibited along with discrimination on the basis of physical or mental handicaps, sex, race, color, national origin, or religion.)
“Having different age groups in a company gives it many advantages: depth of experiences, different perspectives, and more approaches to problem-solving,” Lanza noted. “And it allows the company to gain a more accurate understanding of what its market in different age demographics needs.”
Getting this kind of insight into the daily, lived experiences of potential consumers in a given demographic through your own employees can give rise to new ideas and have a measurable impact on the bottom line, but that’s not the only plus. An age-diverse organization can be a better place to work for its employees, too.
“It creates a richer community to have those multigenerational perspectives,” said Cheryl Fields Tyler, founder and CEO of people-focused management consulting firm Blue Beyond Consulting. “Even apart from the work product, it’s really helpful to have people who are in different stages in parenting, or different stages in pursuing their lives outside of work, and it helps us as a team to work effectively.”
This has been underscored by the current pandemic, Fields Tyler noted. “With COVID-19, we’ve had some people who have elderly parents and need to take time off, or have young kids that are homeschooled, or live alone and [face] the challenges inherent to that,” she said. “Having all those dimensions happening is useful in helping people realize all the ways that [employees of all kinds] are challenged, and it’s made us more compassionate and empathetic.”
Just as with other diversity initiatives, developing a workforce with a broad base of life stages means creating the right environment. Here’s what experts recommend.
To foster a more generationally diverse workforce at your company, ensure that you’re not limiting your pool of prospective candidates at the outset. Stripping out language in job postings — even in internal descriptions and communications about the role — that ties a given position to years of experience instead of demonstrated proficiency can encourage a wider range of candidates to apply. (And watch for innocuous-sounding terms like “digital native” or “seasoned pro” that can signal expectations about exactly who is envisioned in the role.)
“One of the most important steps to improving age equity in hiring is to be intentional about this element of diversity,” Fields Tyler noted. And yes, she said, that means throughout the hiring process: “Post job openings on a diverse range of sites; when possible, remove identifying information from resumes that might lead to age bias in interviewing; and increase the age diversity of your interview panels.”
In fact, Lanza shared that bringing that often-missing intentionality to the hiring process was one of the reasons she founded Work Wider, which connects companies looking for truly diverse talent with employees in underrepresented groups, in January of this year. Her mission, she said, is to encourage firms to not just not be age-blind when hiring, but to embrace a wide variety of ages as a competitive advantage. “I’ve been begging for companies to see the benefits of having employees show up as their full selves,” Lanza said — and as a woman over 50 who is neurodiverse, she added, the mission is personal.
Creating a culture that recognizes and capitalizes on the strengths of different age groups can even mean rethinking the roles being filled, Lanza said. Older people may be more interested in a consulting role that lets them leverage their specific knowledge and skillset, as one example. And she’s known of situations where firms have paired more experienced and less experienced employees to tackle a given challenge together, an arrangement that can bring out strengths in both to achieve an even better result, she noted.
“I want to see the end of ‘cultural fit’ as something companies look for,” Lanza said — it’s how you end up with a homogenous workplace. Instead, she recommended, firms should be thinking about which candidates bring in something new: “They should be thinking of a ‘cultural add,’” she stressed.
In addition to making sure your recruiting and hiring practices are inclusive and welcoming to people of all ages, Jim Pendergast, SVP at altLINE by The Southern Bank Company, an accounts-receivable-based financing platform for commercial customers, said he advises firms to take a close look at the benefits they offer to make sure they work for variety of generations. While older employees might prioritize robust health insurance options, he said, surveys have shown that Millennial workers value generous vacation time allowances, flexible work schedules, and childcare and/or pet care subsidies or stipends.
"These benefits are truly part of the puzzle in attracting, then retaining, the kinds of talent [that can] propel organizational goals,” said Pendergast. “The emphasis shouldn't be on generational diversity for diversity's sake, but [because] every age group brings different knowledge, creativity, and expertise to the table. Incentivize that by creating a dynamic, supportive workplace, and the diversity will follow.”
The paradox to creating a generationally diverse workplace is that building it can require focusing on everything except age.
“One of the important things is to create an inclusive community regardless of age,” said Stephanie Simons, a consultant and colleague of Fields Tyler at Blue Beyond Consulting. “Really getting to know people as people is one of the most important things when you’re talking about diversity.”
Fields Tyler agreed that facilitating ways to let employees see each other as individuals — and not just as a collection of assumptions about what someone of a given generation believes or thinks — is critical to creating meaningful connections. Strategies implemented at her own firm, she said, have included a reverse-mentoring program “where someone who is in a more senior role has an opportunity to learn and connect to someone in a more junior position,” and “lunch-roulette” programs that connect people who aren’t regularly in contact for a meal and conversation.
Above all, treating employees as lifelong learners creates an environment where all ages can flourish, said Simons. When insight and knowledge are expected and encouraged to flow both down and up the org chart, there are fewer assumptions about what age group has all the answers. “It’s about creating a culture of learning where everyone — regardless of title or place in the hierarchy — is expected to be learning and knows they have a lot to learn from a variety of different places,” she said.
Building a work culture that not only values but seeks out a variety of generational perspectives is not going to happen overnight. It’s a process, Lanza said.
“Understandably, any group of people from different backgrounds or age groups that work together as a unit have to go through stages of adjustment. People from different generations carry different inherent value sets that were formed in their respective eras,” Lanza noted. “Each generation brings its own unique mix of these aspects that can be extremely valuable to any organization. Companies that are doing it right are using these differences to their advantage.”
The drive to bring a diversity of generational viewpoints to the table can give rise to a whole host of other benefits: a more informed workforce working with more broadly representative experiences; deeper insights; and a less rigid, more adaptable culture. And it’s a smart step for firms that are looking to level up their operations as a whole. As Lanza put it, “With every hire, companies should be evolving. And why would anyone want to stop where they are?”