“They can’t change” vs “they’re too demanding”: the problem of stereotyped perceptions of age in the workplace

“I have an older lady in my team. She has been here for 30 years. The problem is that she just can’t change and learn to work in the new way that we need.”

“I have a young man on my team who keep pushing for promotion before he is ready. These Millennials have such a strong sense of entitlement. We were never like this in my generation.”

Challenges like these are increasingly facing managers as the workforce becomes more age diverse.

The popular characterization of Millennials as being more narcissistic (particularly the belief that they have an elevated sense of entitlement) is already shaping the day to day experience of 20-35 year old people at work and triggering strategic and policy decisions in organizations.

Compulsory retirement age was abolished in 1986 in USA and 2011 in UK. This relatively recent policy change means organizations are still living with the legacy of a perception of 55+ year old employees that lives on in their cultural, HR and talent development practices. As the age gap increases between young managers and long-tenured direct reports the assumptions and beliefs about older workers ability to change and learn will influence the opportunities available to older workers.

In multi-generational teams, age can be a faultline, just like other diversity characteristics.

There are at least three areas where we should support managers and teams who are grappling with how to be effective as a group of people from different generations:
1.overcoming age-related unconscious bias
2.understanding how people at different ages learn and change
3.communication to increase perspective-taking between team members of different ages

Organizations need to act now to ensure they get the best from every person, regardless of age. They should be challenging the evidence for generational differences, promoting counter-stereotypical information about their own employees of different ages, adjusting learning and development programs for different age groups and thinking creatively about how to attract and retain a multi-generational workforce. There is lots of effective work already going on in other areas of diversity and inclusion that can be leveraged to increase the effectiveness of a multi-generational workforce

Read my next age diversity related article here.