Cross Generational Engagement (Part 5)

Note: This series is based on the paper  My Generation

Generational and life-stage issues affect us both consciously and subconsciously every single day.

A survey by Lee and Hecht Harrison tells us that “70% of older employees are dismissive of younger workers’ abilities and nearly half of younger employees are dismissive of the abilities of their older co-workers”. 

Even at the most progressive of companies, these trends often persist. It’s important to address them head-on to win the battle of engagement.

According to Charles H. Green, Founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, “inter-generational workforces provide a great opportunity to benefit from enlightened diversity policies demonstrated with other multi-group workforces.  The Young and the Restless have a ton to learn from the Older and Wiser, and vice versa.  A firm that can master inter-generational politics can master markets. Or at least do a whole lot better. 

Green goes on to note that it’s tremendously important that today’s companies “don't boil down the differences between the generations by limiting their interactions to molecular homogenization; say it loud, they're young and they're proud!  Gray Power!  To each his own! Working in the same company is difference enough--no need to create oatmeal organizations when you can have rainbow teams, each doing what they're best at.”

For organizational purposes we’ll split this segment into one about Younger Workers (Generations X and Y) and Older Workers (The Baby Boomer Generation and Veterans), present the unique traits that folks of these various life-stages and generations share and provide recommendations and tips for addressing these differences.

The Younger Workforce

With regards to the younger workforce a huge engagement challenge for many companies lies in missing out on opportunities to grow future leaders

One of the biggest historical challenges in the tech workplace is effectively motivating and engaging top young talent. Human Resources plays a huge role in bringing this talent in but engaging and developing it is a responsibility all employees share.

Gen Y and Gen X are our current and near term future leaders. Employers need to invest in efforts to engage these future leaders in a positive way, at the risk of losing them and their influence on their peers.

Building a Pipeline of Future Leaders

Whether leadership is measured by title or influence, organizations need to proactively address the leadership potential of Gen Y and Gen X employees and engage them in a way that prevents cognitive attrition.

Companies are losing leaders at a much faster pace than they are producing them, say Douglas R. Ready and Jay A. Conger, co-authors of a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article titled "How to Fill the Talent Gap." "More than 30 million managers and leaders will be retiring within the next five years," they report. 

The respect for gender or cultural diversity and the programs to build pipelines for future leaders in these areas helps corporations see opportunities they might otherwise miss in these arenas, but they don’t always have that in place for generational diversity. This is one area where organizations can stand to greatly improve. so as to not lose their future leaders to attrition, or lack of engagement.

According to a Taleo study conducted in 2008, 43% of college graduates stayed in their first job less than two years and 19% of 18-34 years olds wanted to quit their first job every day, compared to 3% of those 55 years and over. 

The focus on keeping younger talent will become even more important when the economy turns. According to the Economist “managers will have to make an extra effort to keep the “Net Generation” motivated in times of economic downturn, to prevent an exodus of young talent once the economy improve”. This is attributed to a capricious quality present in the latest generation of professionals, Generation Y (or the “Net Generation”).

The great news for many tech companies , if they are able to adequately engage these folks technological savvy is a core skill for most every college recruit – whether the job is writing code, developing an ad campaign, or doing corporate tax work. 

Growing up in a tech savvy environment also means that during development, Gen Y’ers may actually approach problem solving differently than workers of other generations. They are after instant gratification and recognition and often value the speed of a solution over its comprehensiveness. They are used to getting things now, and are drawn to two-way communication (rather than one-way instruction). They love feedback.

Gen X-ers bear many similarities to Gen Y employees, though both these younger groups are strikingly different in work style than Boomers and Veterans.

"3 out of 5 Gen Xers have said that someday they want to work for themselves. I believe this is less to do with the need for true business ownership than it is a sense of control over their own destiny."

Gen Xers have an entrepreneurial streak. Like Gen Y employees, Generation X-ers also seek recognition and are drawn to opportunities to learn and enjoy their work as well have control over their surroundings. Since X-ers value workplace environment and culture, employers should create a light and lively learning culture. Be honest and unafraid of conflict when providing feedback. X-ers seek responsibility, but not always proactively: create a career ladder or promotion plan for them. Gen X grew up in an era of corporate downsizing, so they are skeptical and want to control their own destiny.

X-ers love technology and toys; equip them with the latest office technology. They also work to live lives full of the best and the biggest; therefore give them perks that are personal.

In return, expect a strong work ethic and an amazing ability to multi-task. X-ers will commit to you if they feel you have committed to them.

To keep future leaders on track it is important to understand the aforementioned traits and make changes in management practices to build on them.

Younger Managers

The four-generation workplace finally turns upside-down some of the visible symbols of hierarchy in the traditional workplace" comments Jonathan Winter from Oxford-based think-tank Career Innovation (Ci). "For example, we have twenty-somethings managing people the age of their grandparents. So someone's importance can no longer be assumed from grey hairs. That can only be a good thing since it forces us all to respect people and not to judge too quickly or our assumptions will come back and bite us."

One of the most dramatic changes that this demographic shift brings with it is the increase in younger bosses managing older workers. Traditionally, the more experienced move up in the organization and manage those with less experience. The societal demographics and rapid increase in the pace of work brought on by technological change has led to a growth in instances of younger managers managing employees older than themselves. In many corporation this dynamic has not been specifically addressed by management training programs and it is essential that happens to successfully prepare a pipeline of future leaders. 

What Should a Younger Manager Do?

“The very first step towards making the younger boss/older worker relationship work is to accept the situation for what it is and stop kicking and screaming! The younger boss is the boss and wouldn’t be the boss if he or she were not qualified – diapers or no diapers. At the same time, a boss is only as strong as his or her direct reports. The younger boss needs to respect the older worker for the years of experience and expertise that he/she brings to the table, which will help to make the team shine – dentures or no dentures. If both individuals can accept that they each have something unique to bring to the table, then one big hurdle has been overcome.”

In situations where a manager has a direct report older than them, the manager must have enough self-confidence to respect the experience and not try to dictate or micro-manage. This can even help young manager accelerate their own learning and growth. However, many young managers are uncomfortable in situations where their employees are much older than them and can fall into a trap where they dictate and micro-manage as a reactionary tactic, which leads to either mistreatment, ignorance, under-utilization, or a general lack of success in these situations.  As a result, many organizations with younger management chains are reticent to hire older workers. Younger managers need to show respect, and make a solid first impression with older employees, and be open to listening to their wisdom, while still maintaining their position as the leader.

Asking questions, asking for feedback and learning from employees are areas where younger managers must particularly focus on, and can do so without losing authority as a leader.

As with most employees, older workers want to be respected, to be consulted and involved in decision making. Younger managers need to engage older employees and empower them, perhaps more so than they typically would with employees of a similar age or generation.

Lastly it is important for the younger manager to understand the people s/he is managing, and be aware of the motivations and tendencies of the older workforce.

The Older Workforce

With regards to the older workforce challenges for many companies around engagement lie in understanding the demographical changes at play, ensuring that the rise in workforce age is treated with respect and urgency (taking into account older workers’ unique traits), and ensuring that older employees have positive exit experiences.

Given the aforementioned work dynamics and opportunities brought upon by the unprecedented generational diversity demographers are seeing, it is equally important to understand the older workforce as the younger.

Both head count retention and cognitive retention should be evaluated in determining a company’s plan for engaging the Older workforce .

If employees decide to hold off on retiring organizations need to understand what keeps them at the company and use that to engage them – or risk losing millions of dollars a year in cognitive attrition. Companies also need to develop strong exit options for the older workforce, so they leave on good terms.

So what makes the Boomers and Veterans unique?

As the population ages, and the economy continues to struggle, we see the number of Boomer and Veteran workers increasing and a rise in the average age of employees in the US. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of the American workforce is about 41 years old, compared to 20 years earlier when it was nearly 36

Whether it’s the result of an aging workforce or a trend that finds companies hiring more stability-oriented, older workers, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that over the next 10 years, members of the workforce ages 55 and up will grow by an annual rate of four percent – four times faster than the growth expected for the entire workforce.

Nearly two in five workers (38 percent) currently aged 50 to 64 plan to carry on working beyond 65, according to a survey conducted by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). In addition, those who are not planning to work past 65, 31 percent would change their mind if their employer allowed them to work flexibly, and another fifth say that they would be tempted to carry on

Globally, the population aged 60 or over is the fastest growing

Population aging will continue to have important implications. In the more developed regions, the population aged 60 or over is growing at the fastest pace ever (at 2% annually) and is expected to increase by 58%over the next four decades, rising from 264 million in 2009 to 416 million in 2050.

Deborah Russell, manager of AARP’s Economic Security/Work section, told MSNBC that with 78 million baby boomers approaching retirement age, industries like healthcare and retail are already focusing on hiring and retaining older workers. “By virtue of their sheer numbers, absolutely, employers have no choice but to really look at [older workers] ... as a continuing pool of resources that they might need in the future,” Russell said. And that means more than just offering the older worker a job – it means making the work and the workplace fit the worker. It means truly engaging them.

Impact of a Down Economy

The recent economic downtown plays a big role in the choice to retire. Working longer has a big impact on retirement savings.

  • On average, working an additional year increases annual retirement income about 9%.
  • Working an additional five years boosts annual retirement income about 56%.
  • The impact is even larger for people at the lower end of the income distribution. 


In United States, there are dramatic changes taking place in the median age and life expectancy at birth numbers. From 1950 to projected 2050, median age in North America will rise from 29.8 years to 42.1.  The percentage of the population over age 60 will rise from 12.4% in 1950 to 27.8%. Life expectancy at birth will go from 68.8 years to 83.5 years by 2050.

Not only are people living longer, but the percentages of those over age 65 who are unable to work because of chronic disability continues to fall. In addition, as the type of work has changed from physical labor to knowledge work, older workers are more able to contribute at sufficient levels. Improved healthcare and healthier lifestyles contribute to living longer.

Workers also stay in the workforce longer because the emotional well-being and identity associated with work is harder to give up. The social aspect of the workplace is more important as divorce rates have been on the rise for decades and there are more single adults. “In 1960, only 1.6 percent of older men and 1.5 percent of women aged 65 and older were divorced. But by 2003, 7 percent of older men and 8.6 percent of older women were divorced and had not remarried. The trend may be continuing. In 2003, among people in their early 60s, 12.2 percent of men and 15.9 percent of women were divorced. Without the social relationships in the workplace, these single older workers fear being completely alone.

The result is that the size of the mature workforce is large and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Age Discrimination 

With the increasing numbers of older workers, who are staying in the workforce and not retiring, one immediate concern that comes up is age discrimination aimed at the older workforce.

Studies show that “nearly half of younger employees are dismissive of the abilities of their older co-workers."

If the goal is to engage the older workforce and prevent cognitive attrition it is important that corporations start by being leaders in respecting older workers.

It’s been suggested thatage is discriminated against more so than race or gender. Everyone tends to use self-deprecating humor about the impact of aging. It’s become OK to make jokes about aging that would be inappropriate for race or gender. As a result, beliefs about age and performance have clouded the picture.

The myth that older workers don’t perform as well has been dispelled by luminaries like Warren Buffett, George Soros, Brett Favre, and the Rolling Stones.

Older workers don’t necessarily cost more in salary. Certainly, experience may cost more, but many older workers are not working solely for the paycheck - there are other factors that have value, and they may be quite willing to earn less.

Older workers don’t necessarily cost more in healthcare insurance costs. Individually, older workers may make more claims, but since most companies offer family benefits, it’s likely that overall costs for older workers who no longer have dependents, are less than younger workers with children.

All that said, age discrimination is still on the rise. As more baby boomers remain in the workforce past retirement age, it is likely that older workers will sense discriminatory actions. In his new book, Peter Capelli says that managers are often reluctant to hire someone older than they are, because they are intimidated or they believe that candidate won’t respect a young manager. In some cases, those biases deprive organizations of the experienced senior workers they need.

It is important age discrimination is taken seriously, and management practices that can perpetuate these issues are carefully reviewed.

For example, “forced ranking can provide a patina of legitimacy that obscures—perhaps, in some cases, even from the decision makers themselves—the reliance on unfounded stereotypical assumptions about older workers, such as the canard that older workers are resistant to change and innovation and, therefore, cannot adapt to the virtual realities of the computerized twenty-first century workplace, whereas their younger counterparts can do so easily.”

To be a leader in the diversity space and win the employee engagement battle companies must learn from generational diversity issues related to discrimination and put in place measures to prevent them.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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