Let’s take a quick quiz:
Which age group is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that for the decade 2014-2024, workers ages 65 to 74 will grow by 55 percent vs. a 5 percent overall increase in the total number of workers. Employees 75 and older will increase by 86 percent.
Which age group is the now the largest segment of the U.S. workforce?
Millennials and Gen Z. In 2021, four out of 10 American workers were born between 1980-2000. Gen Z, those born between 1995-2010, makes up the latest wave of young professionals entering the workforce. These 60+ million new job seekers bring very different characteristics and expectations to the office.
You get the picture: grandparents are increasingly working side by side with grandchildren. How, then, can business leaders harness the full talent and energy of a workforce spanning 50+ years? By examining how they view and perceive those they supervise, whether it’s Jill fresh out of college or Orvis approaching retirement.
Here are five tips I’ve learned for effective generational collaboration in the workplace:
1. Forget the age myths. Seniors (the so-called “Silent Generation”) aren’t ‘just putting in their time,’ nor are millennials exclusively focused on job-hopping. Innovation, insight and organizational loyalty can come from all segments of the workforce.
2. Remove obstacles from the path of talent. No matter their age, employees often think and act within an envelope of constraints, some organizationally imposed and others self-imposed. Frank in accounting sits on a good idea because he dreads being caught up in company red tape. Linda in marketing views herself as the new kid on the block and therefore never challenges the status quo. The main job of a manager is to spot and remove obstacles that prevent employees from doing their best.
3. Nurture a company culture of listening. Workforce generations with disparate perspectives (“You’re the newbie,” “OK boomer”) rarely learn to work together by lecturing or ignoring one another. Bonds of collaboration are forged by listening to each other and recognizing differences in technology use and abilities.
Unfortunately, managers are not always the best models for productive listening. They have a tendency to talk, talk, talk as if they were the only person in the room. Ironically, they conclude these sermons with “Any questions or comments?” The dead silence that falls among employees should signal to any leader that “length is not strength.” As Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth. We should use them in that proportion.”
Texting provides a useful analogy. No one purposely creates exceedingly long texts, knowing they will not be read. A short text is more effective because it invites immediate participation and encourages a response. Managers can cultivate a listening culture by thinking about workplace communication – spoken or written – as text messages: brief stimuli that foster the sharing of perspectives and opinions.
4. Reward meaning-making. Without someone to connect the dots, raw data by itself is just a thousand points of blight. Workers who can find the ‘story’ emerging from evidence are extraordinarily valuable to any organization. Of course, the nature of the story at hand can differ, as told by employees of various ages. When all segments of a multigenerational workforce feel empowered to speak their minds, the ‘meaning’ available to an organization for planning, strategy, marketing and other functions will be broad and deep.
5. Ensure cross-pollination. Generations that have much to learn from one another are missing a crucial opportunity for professional growth if they retreat – by choice or assignment – to groups, committees, work teams and meetings populated mainly by peers within their own age group. Managers should observe employee interaction across the organization to ensure that same-age groups are not drinking their own bathwater.
In sum, age is not just a number when it comes to workplace collaboration. Different generations often have contrasting perspectives, technical expertise, social connectivity and communication habits. However, a manager’s primary goal is to understand and harmonize these differences into an impactful company culture through listening, mutual respect, and mix-and-match exposure to the full bouquet of generational talent.
Dayle M. Smith, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Business Administration at Loyola Marymount University and leads boomers, millennials and Gen-Zers – a multigenerational ecosystem with a commitment to lifelong and reciprocal learning.
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