Getting the most from employees, regardless of age

Academic research challenges the popular notion of generational differences
and there is little empirical evidence to suggest that significant differences in work attitudes or performance can be attributed to membership of a generation. For example, a large scale study conducted by IBM found that only 2% of the difference in measures of employee engagement can be attributed to generational difference. The vast majority is due to individual differences such as personality traits, job role, seniority and relationships.

The convenient demarcation of generations by birth year is challenged by the principles taught in every undergraduate psychology course; that the individual differences of people within a group are greater than the generalized differences between the groups.

The NACE 2014 Student Survey of graduates suggest that even the Millennial generation may not be a single cohort: “The economic recession and the long road to recovery seems to have been a watershed event that has split the “Millennial” generation into two parts, with the latter part of the generation possibly posing far more challenges for employers than was true of those initially classified as Millennial”.

The Millennial generation is often characterized as having an inflated sense of entitlement and this, combined with their assertiveness to ask for what they want, gives them repeated negative press. But is this really true?

This characterization ignores the maturation processes that have taken place in the older people who are now their managers. Motivation, priorities and behaviors change with age – but this is true for every generation. The impact of cognitive flaws in memory mean that older people almost certainly misremember their own behavior from early in their careers.

Simply gaining years of experience at work takes you through the process of being consciously incompetent and therefore highly confident in your ability, through the uncomfortable feeling of being consciously incompetent and towards a level of conscious competence and then automatic performance.

By virtue of having traveled further along this path, older people are aware of how much there is to learn, whereas younger people are not yet. This means it is essential that younger employees are clearly told what is expected, what is left to learn, and receive feedback that is specific enough to raise their conscious awareness of learning. The problem that arises daily in organizations is that managers (of all ages) are often poor at articulating the gap, and unclear about the standards that need to be reached.

The same problem exists for the group typically referred to as “older workers”. Who are these people and are they a homogenous group? Research shows that there are a number of factors that influence managers’ perception of what makes an older worker including:
•Age norms in their industry or organization
•Proximity to typical or statutory retirement age
•Planning for retirement
•Career stage
•Physical ability or appearance
•Changing work-life priorities

An investigation[1] into definitions of older worker among organizational decision makers found a range of definitions from 28 – 75 years with a mean age of 52. One striking finding from this research was that the age of the person who is being asked to define an “older worker” affects the answer they give. Managers and supervisors aged over 35 are more likely to define an “older worker” as having an older chronological age than managers and supervisors under 35.

If organizations treat any generation as a homogenous group they limit the opportunity to get the most from employees of all ages and potentially discriminate against whomever they define as Millenials or older workers.

What we need to do urgently in organizations is implement inclusion programs that address age-diversity, in a similar way to existing initiatives for gender, ethnicity or LGBT. For example, we should present counter-stereotypical evidence of both young and old people and facilitate conversations between people of different ages that lead to an understanding of commonalities rather than differences.

We need to tackle cultural factors that stifle inclusion of employees of all ages, even where legislation and policy exists to protect the rights of workers.

Finally we need to educate managers and HR decision makers about the importance of working with individual differences rather than promoting generational stereotypes.

Read my previous age diversity related article here.



[1] Who is considered an ‘older worker’? Extending our conceptualisation of ‘older’ from an organisational decision maker perspective. Jean McCarthy, Noreen Heraty and Christine Cross, University of Limerick, Jeanette N. Cleveland, Colorado State University, Human Resource Management Journal, Vol 24, no 4, 2014, pages 374–393