Age Diversity

APRIL 2022

Our society has accepted the idea that older people have a pronounced and influential effect on the economy, the country, and the workplace.    Studies bear this out. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review prompted me to write this commentary. “Harnessing the Power of Age Diversity: Generational identity should be a source of learning, not division.”  (Megan W. Gerhardt,Josephine Nachemson-Ekwall, and Brandon Fogel. Harvard BusinessReview, March 08, 2022).

Embracing aging is part of the story

  • Just look at: President Joe Biden—79; Nancy Pelosi—82; Mitch McConnell—80; Chuck Schumer—71; Dianne Feinstein – 88; Charles Grassley -88; Richard Shelby-87; James Inhofe-86.
  • In sports, age has a peculiar twist because the older coaches are coaching kids as young as their grandchildren. Over the last ten NCAA tournaments, head coaches age 60 and over have gone a combined 183-115 (.614) with five national championships and 15 Final Four berths. Several energetic coaches are Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)—Coach K—75—2022 Final Four (retired); Jim Boeheim (Syracuse)—77; and Tara Ann VanDerveer—70.
  • How about great jazz musicians who are still performing:  Dame Shirley Bassey—85; Ron Carter, jazz double bassist, is 84 years old. His trio won a recent Grammy for the Best Jazz Instrumental Album for 2021, “Skyline,” with Carter, Jack DeJohnette, 79, drums; and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, 49, piano. For jazz lovers, the album is as cool as it gets.
  • Musicians still touring are Sir Paul McCartney – 80 in June; Bruce Springsteen – 73 in September; Sir Mick Jagger – 79 in July; Keith Richards – 79 in December; Rod Stewart – 77 in June; Sir Elton John – 75; Dolly Parton – 76; and Willie Nelson – 79.
  • Renowned actors either still acting or directing: Sir Anthony Hopkins – 84 (he won the “Best Actor” Academy Award in 2021 at age 83); Dustin Hoffman – 84; Judi Dench – 87; and Al Pacino – 81.
  • Furthermore, 10,000 Baby Boomers are reaching 65 every day and will continue to do so until 2030. 

These highlighted leaders and trendsetters are not the only cohort in our culture and society. The aging phenomenon is an enriching and integral part of our communities in ways that were almost unheard of 70 years ago. Indeed, we are fortunate to have so many creative individuals and leaders of all ages; the blending of their contributions makes our society powerful.

The battle of generations was one of the central themes of ancient Greek and Chinese writers. This article, however, is not about the tensions and disputes among ancestors, but about how today’s workforce can and should adapt to the reality of a wide age range in the workplace. Let’s explore what this means for organizations.

Comedians often poke fun at older people, a universal subject in humor. Because most comedy is based on truth, the routines on “senior moments” and the like point out age bias in our society. For instance:

While he was visiting, my father asked for the password to our Wi-Fi. “It’s taped under the modem,” I told him. After three failed attempts to log on, he asked, “Am I spelling this right? T-A-P-E-D-U-N-D-E-R-T-H-E-M-O-D-E-M?”  Sharon McGinley, Talbott, Tennessee

The old man was sitting on the examining table in the doctor’s office having his hearing checked. The doctor poked his light scope in the old man’s ear and said, “Hey, you have a suppository in your ear!”

“Rats,” said the old man. “Now I know where my hearing aid went.”

Source: Reader’s Digest

Note: I did find out that certain suppositories are used for earaches. Who knew?

Laughter is good for us. A study bears out what we know instinctively, “Laugh Lots, Live Longer: A vast new study finds that a sense of humor lowers mortality rates, especially for women.” (Scientific American, 2016). However, constant joking about aging in the workplace is inappropriate if not harmful to a harmonious environment.

Many of us a certain age (Note: I am taking liberty with this notion of not being young) love Medicare; Social Security is OK; nursing homes suck.  Remind me not to get old. This is phrase a colleague of mine said to me when I was managing long-term care services. I use this all the time when asked about my age. (Asking someone’s age is showing age bias.)

Four points in particular can be made about aging:

  • Age is not a barrier to contributing to our society.
  • Leadership is not age dependent.
  • People continue to be creative at any age.
  • Laughing helps people live longer.

Age can mean wisdom and patience, or, on the other hand, we hear sayings like “being stubborn,” “set in their ways,” and “won’t they just go away?” These contradictions form the crux of the issue: What do fellow workers assume about people who are older?

Over a third (37.3 percent) of the USA’s essential workforce is age 50 and older; close to 15 percent of the 6.4 million employee workforce is age 60 or older. (Source: AARP: Public Policy Institute.)

An inspiring piece about leaders of nonprofit agencies in NYC who are under 40 isThe 2022 Nonprofit 40 Under 40” (NYN Media Newsletter, April 4, 2022). The article is about the next generation of leaders serving New Yorkers. I found it exciting to read about how each profiled person reached a leadership position. In a recent consulting project, I also enjoyed encouraging stories about up-and-coming leaders.

How does this relate to the Harvard Business Review article cited on page one?  The authors observe that “Conflict between generations is an age-old phenomenon.” I learned that “OK Boomer” is a viral, internet-slang phrase used in a humorous or ironic manner. The purpose is to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the Baby Boomer generation, and older people more generally.

“OK,” Boomers I want to say “thank you” to the younger generation for helping to pay for Medicare and Social Security. “We Boomers want you to keep working as long as possible. We are grateful to the younger folks for letting us manage the country and many important organizations.” This imagined dialogue is not meant to be “snarky.” Rather, I call this age-reverse-bias, meaning that Baby Boomers are always credited as the drivers of change – a phrase that has been complimentary because of the Boomers’ success economically, culturally, and politically. Boomers consider themselves as being in the forefront of making life better. What happens as they become the older generation?    

According to the Harvard Business Review article, the simple fact is that most organizations have five generations in the workforce: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z, all working together to help each organization fulfill its business or social purposes. This mix is predicted to continue for another decade or so, a finding that does not seem to penetrate the human resources improvement world. Since I work with many organizations, I see that most HR directors don’t know how to approach this phenomenon.

When applied to the subject of older employees, in most cases I find that HR folks ignore multi-generational facts or deny their reality. Even the language of improving employee performance can get mired in prejudice and bias. Language from managers sometimes reflects this, as in: “We need more energy;” “we need more innovation;” “we need new thinking.”  Leaders are often unaware or even surprised to realize that their language is laden with age bias or outright ageism. 

In the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, when the main medium for conferencing was Zoom, I recall that everyone was stymied by the video and mute buttons or didn’t realize that the camera was on while fussing with their hair and so forth.  I heard comments that clearly were ageist, such as,

 “Get with it,” “let’s wait for them to catch up,” or “for heaven’s sake, turn off the mute button.”

 Despite these often-barbed comments, interesting research has emerged, concluding that older workers adjusted to remote work faster and better than younger staff. This finding may be related to the need for younger staff to stay more connected to their own reference group. Away from the collegiality and meeting convenience of the office, the sense of belonging was often lost.

I have observed younger staff members looking at the older members of the team. Reading their minds, the looks convey that these folks are as old as their parents or even their grandparents. Conversely, the older team members ought to stop beginning conversations with the “I remember” sentences, or “let me tell you my experience.” While short war stories can be interesting in after-work settings, it is inappropriate to reminisce or bring up illnesses in professional meetings. Learning to be an aware team member is a good start in reducing generational bias.

Getting old and being old are two different phenomena.

Longevity and vitality in the older years have vastly improved, owing to good health care, advances in public health, and engagement in the “be healthy” movement. As a result, getting older is far less a barrier to a longer work experience. Over 25 percent of people between 65 and 74 are working, and nine percent over 75 continue to work.  These statistics account for individuals who desire to work beyond traditional retirement age, but, sadly, an opposite reality is a lack of pension plans and savings.  Studies show that a large number of people in the 65-74 age range have less than $150,000 in retirement funds, which poses a tough challenge as years pass. 

Being old is a mindset.

 Elderly persons are not spared from the all-too-common, harmful stereotypes of individuals and groups in our society.  Research indicates that older persons too often see themselves as being less valuable. Several studies find that the younger generation often dislikes being associated with older persons, who are clearly not their reference group. Unfortunately, too many older persons use these “being old in the eyes of younger people” studies as smokescreens or  excuses for not contributing and engaging in life.  

Nonetheless, there is good news! Research indicates that older people feel younger than their actual age. A Harvard longevity study confirms that people over 75 are pleasantly surprised by their happiness. 

Based on direct observation and personal experience, I note that my colleagues in their 70s continue to be highly  effective as CEOs and presidents of large, complex organizations. Many are “thought leaders.”

I can attest to the rapidly disappearing self-reference of “being older.”  Rarely these days do we hear senior managers use the stigmatizing words, “I am having a senior moment,” or “getting old really sucks.” Humor about aging is a two-way street. While kidding about aging regrettably often goes on in the younger workforce, it behooves seniors not to make tired old jokes about themselves. 

The demographics of an aging society are playing out in all sectors of our society.

The HBR article states that “The assumptions we make about generational groups (including our own) can hold us back from understanding teammates’ true selves as well as the skills, information, and connections they have to offer. Noticing that we’re making these assumptions is the first step to combating them.”Continuing, the authors observe, “Stereotypes often cause us to incorrectly attribute differences to age or to assume ill intent where there is none. Adjusting your lens means considering whether the assumptions that you’ve identified align with the reality of the situation at hand, or whether you’ve been judging someone’s actions and attitudes based only on your frame of reference. . .  Once you’ve tempered generational tensions by recognizing assumptions and adjusting lenses, you can work on finding productive differences [emphasis added] with your colleagues of other generations and ways to benefit from each other’s perspectives, knowledge, and networks.” Sound advice indeed!

The article’s authors offer several ideas based on their research; my brief summary follows:

  • While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on commonalities when the goal is to leverage differences, team members must first see themselves as collaborators on a joint mission, rather than competitors. Furthermore, research shows that having a common purpose and goals are vital to team performance.
  • By creating a space for team members to discuss how the group functions, managers demonstrate that all perspectives are valued.
  • The ultimate goal is mutual learning – peers of all ages teaching and learning from one another in an ongoing loop.
  • Mutual learning can also happen organically when people of different generations have good relationships and are on the lookout for opportunities.

I do have a few concerns about the article; perhaps they go beyond what the authors intended in their research. Many senior staff members have no desire to be mentors. They want to be equal team members and make contributions, not because the other team members tolerate the older staff, but because they add value. This is part of continuous learning. I think that: HR directors have not ventured into or embraced the power of age diversity, and may not understand how to use the power to advantage.  The HBR article, while of great interest and scholarship, may not have much relevance to the work of managing organizations.

  • The article provides limited information on the role of leaders and the actual performance of leaders in a multi-generational setting.

My suggested starting point for leaders and HR managers is to capture the workforce span of ages and sort out employee satisfaction surveys to see how age plays a role in differences of responses. Using simple surveys with revealing questions might also be a way to jump into this fact of work life, as long as the survey is not riddled with age biases. 

Final points to ponder about older workers: Some people really love to work because this gives them meaning, keeps them connected, earns money, and channels their energy to drive performance. They love learning and working as a team member. I’ve had the pleasure of observing  wonderful participation on the part of colleagues “of a certain age.” As one in that age group, it can be said that I might not be able to dance as fast as others, but I’ve still got cool moves!

more Articles