Lauren Shroll

Cactus Team

How Age Diversity Contributes to a Thriving Workplace

Human Resources

Is age just a number? It's a tricky question in a society that questions value and relevancy as people age into and out of a rapidly evolving workforce. 

According to the World Health Organization, it's a widespread global challenge. One in two people is believed to hold ageist attitudes, resulting in poorer health and quality of life, most notably for older populations edging closer to retirement age. A job can signify personal worth and purpose, and increasing age means increasing invisibility in society.

On the other side of the spectrum, Gen Zs question their ability to gain a seat at the table and contribute their ideas, even in an entry-level job.

In this article, we break down age-related stereotypes, best practices in fostering age diversity, and even a couple of challenges in cultivating age-diverse work cultures. Plus, we share a few companies' approaches to supporting a multigenerational workforce.

Age Diversity in Today's Workforce

What does age diversity mean?

Age diversity is defined as the accepted difference in ages between younger and older team members in an organization. This means in any given team, multiple generations of information, expertise, and skillsets come together to get the job done.

It's crucial for teams to consider the age diversity of their teams since the makeup of the workforce is drastically changing. Employees between the ages of 16 and 24 have dropped by 7.7%. Meanwhile, the number of employees ages 75 and up is growing by a whopping 93.7%. By 2031, the total number of workers aged 55 and older is expected to make up 25% of the workforce in countries that include the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy, and France. Globally, that would equate to 150 million jobs, nearly equivalent to the entire working population of the United States.

Here is the current breakdown of age across the workforce:

A more mature workforce raises questions about how age impacts employment. In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was implemented in the US to prevent discrimination toward workers older than 40 by companies with at least 20 employees (although some states have different rulings).

While ADEA prohibits age-related harassment, hiring managers are often still able to ask about age and graduation dates (depending on state laws). Plus, workers still face age discrimination at work. In 2022 alone, the Equal Opportunity Commission shared they received 11,500 charges of age-related discrimination. In a survey conducted by AARP, two out of three employees between the ages of 45 and 74 admitted to facing age discrimination at work, especially in the tech and entertainment industries. The effects of discrimination are felt more by women than men, with 75% of women between 45 and 74 saying they believed that age discrimination was an issue, compared to 57% of men.

Younger workers also face discrimination, which is termed reverse ageism. Companies hire younger employees but may be biased in favor of the experience and ideas of seasoned team members. In an interview with a young worker using the pseudonym Leia, the BBC team found the individual was changing her appearance and dress at work after receiving direct comments like "What does a 23-year-old know about these things?" In many organizations, seniority holds power. While younger employees are learning the ropes, they are also navigating the pressure of proving themselves.

The Anatomy of an Age-Diverse Workforce

In today's workforce, a team will likely be made up of people from multiple generations, each with unique working styles and values based on the socioeconomic factors that came into play early in their lives.

Baby Boomers

Born 1946-1964

This generation was born shortly after the end of World War II during a time when jobs were competitive and resources were limited. Birth rates skyrocketed, leading to a literal baby boom. Today, most of the Baby Boomer generation has reached retirement age. However, many individuals find themselves continuing to work to create additional income, pursue creative interests, or maintain a personal sense of purpose.

In whatever capacity they decide to work, Baby Boomers take pride in their "work hard" mentality and value independence. Their push to work efficiently not only plays out in problem-solving but also in decision-making by choosing the most rational path forward. They are extremely curious and intelligent and will put in the time to seek answers.

Generation X

Born 1965-1980

When it comes to media attention, this generation is often referred to as the "middle child." Generation X-ers led very different early lives than either of the earlier generations, growing up in a time characterized by Y2K, divorce, and dual-income households.

As a result, Gen X individuals grew up with less supervision, leading them to value stability and be more resourceful and adaptable to change. Their work habits tend to reflect less of the competitive, work-centric beliefs of the prior generation. As a result, this highly educated generation operates with a "work hard, play hard" mentality with the goal of achieving a better work-life balance.

Generation Y (Millennials)

Born 1981-1996

Commonly known as Millennials, individuals in Generation Y are often considered "digital natives," having grown up with the advancement of the internet and blossoming social media platforms.

At work, Millennials prioritize work-life balance, though they understand the value of hard work and achieving their goals. They also prefer more feedback than other generations and tend to be the ones who want to take the lead. Millennials are also increasingly eco-conscious, with one Pew Research report finding that 67% of Millennials consider climate change a top priority.

Generation Z

Born 1997-2012

As a generation that's grown up with an iPhone in their hands from a young age, Generation Z values collaboration, speed, convenience, and customization. When it comes to communication and content, they typically prefer it short and sweet.

Like Millenials, Gen Zs also have high expectations for businesses concerning ethics and activism efforts when it comes to sustainability. They are also generally most active on social media and prioritize taking part in issues they care about, whether it's climate change, inequality, or economic issues. Based on a survey by the Edelman research firm, 70% of Gen Z individuals are involved with a social or political cause. 

Generation Alpha 

Born 2013-Present

As the youngest group, Generation Alpha hasn't yet entered the workforce, but they're close. It's already understood that this group is highly connected with technology, having been born into a digital world and witnessing the rapid development of tech from a young age, including advancements like artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

Generation Alpha is a group of creativity-seeking problem solvers that are not to be confused with Gen Z. Dubbed "mini-millennials," this generation is highly in tune with their values, including being more family-oriented and inclusivity-focused in terms of representation, both in media and in the workplace.

Age Diversity: Competitive Edge or Company Challenge?

Each generation brings its own unique skills, traits, and knowledge to the workforce. However, does that diversity have a positive effect on organizations or create more conflict?

Let's take a look at the key benefits of age diversity first.

  1. Loyalty: A key benefit for hiring and recruitment, mature employees are often less likely to job hop and often have cemented their career path and chosen a role they love. A team filled with experienced company veterans is better able to support the job tenure of younger employees, helping to reduce employee turnover across all age groups.
  2. Cognitive Diversity: If you have a team full of only one age group, whether it's 30-year-olds or 65-year-olds, chances are you will miss out on key perspectives that only come from a multigenerational team. Having differing viewpoints helps remove redundancy in perspectives and combines years of both tech and business savvy to create a well-rounded team. A 2015 study of a board of directors found that generational differences improved performance by combining wisdom and experience with community engagement and planning capabilities across all age groups.
  3. Empathetic Culture: Empathy is a skill that's learned over the years by training the brain to understand the different experiences and feelings of others who look, act, or think differently. When younger and more mature employees can connect, it helps strengthen empathy and alleviate prior assumptions they held about one another—the "kids these days" mentality being one example.
  4. Close the Skill Gap: When mature employees leave, valuable knowledge, lessons, and stories are lost for future employees. With a developed system of mentorship, senior employees can help train newer employees and leave a lasting legacy by sharing their knowledge before they retire. Companies like GE, Deloitte, and Proctor & Gamble know that filling in the skills gap goes both ways and utilize "reverse mentoring" programs where younger workers share their skill sets with senior employees.
  5. Positive Team Energy: It turns out that multigenerational collaboration can even have an impact on the emotional energy and culture within an organization, all of which fosters increased engagement and motivation. Sara Rahmani, the VP of People Experience & DEI at Chronus, shares that this is a major benefit to their company as a result of using mentorship software to support age diversity at the company:

My older workers, they get this emotional energy by having an opportunity to share their views and teach the next generation. My younger workers report greater levels of engagement as a result of learning from their older, more seasoned colleagues.

Benefits aside, what big challenges do companies need to navigate?

One challenge is social categorization, which means that people will subconsciously group themselves and others based on perceived differences, including age, race, and sexual orientation. This can lead to an us-versus-them mentality, which naturally complicates the team dynamic and overall performance.

Another issue is found in communication. With different ages come different preferences around communication, from a company town hall meeting and leadership training to receiving 1-on-1 feedback. If not tackled effectively, this can lead to issues with productivity. 

Communication issues can also further exacerbate assumptions that employees hold against one another based on their generational differences. For example, younger employees may feel overshadowed by the seniority of older employees, while older employees might believe that younger employees are unskilled or unable to contribute.

Shattering Stereotypes

Each generation has its values, but what preconceived notions do generations have about each other?

Creating inclusive age-diverse teams that effectively communicate and value each other's strengths and input means challenging assumptions on how age impacts work.

Let's debunk three common stereotypes.

1. Older generations are less technologically savvy. 

In a Google study focusing on the Baby Boomer generation, 82% reported belonging to at least one social media platform. In addition, Baby Boomers were found to spend more time online each week than those between the ages of 16 and 34, clocking in 27 hours

In the workplace, it might come as a surprise that older employees may be more comfortable with technology than Gen Z, who are often labeled as the tech-savvy generation. Of senior employees surveyed, 56% were found to be educating themselves on generative AI, versus 12% of younger, entry-level employees.

According to a UK poll, younger workers also reported more "tech shame," saying they felt embarrassed by technical issues or would avoid meeting participation because of them. In a Salesforce Future of Work survey, workers were asked to rank skills in terms of their importance for work. Surprisingly, 27% of teens aged 13 to 18 said they did not feel confident in their digital skills and only ranked digital skills as the seventh most important skill needed at work, a huge discrepancy when compared to its number one ranking by older workers.

As the co-founder and CEO of the e-learning platform UJJI, Ludmila Milla shares that it's a common misconception that younger generations are tech-savvy simply because they have been surrounded by digital tools their entire lives. She notes that TikTok and Minecraft experience is not indicative of future workers being ready to take on collaboration tools or virtual meeting software.

2. Younger workers are "lazy" and "entitled."

With many from older generations believing that butt-in-seat hours translate into a person's work ethic, it's no wonder that it leads to questions about younger generations' desire to work, especially with trending topics like "lazy girl jobs" and reports of Gen Z coming to work late.

According to one Reddit thread, every generation has its take on being called lazy by the previous generation, with one user sharing a quote from Socrates about the philosopher's view of the younger generations.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

For today's younger workers, is it really evidence of entitlement or simply questioning workplace norms?

From the 40-hour workweek to toxic work cultures, younger generations (Gen Z especially) are making it known that they want a healthier place to work, even if means compromising on a higher salary in the process.

In a recent National Society of High School Scholars survey, the highest priorities for high schoolers and college students was finding a workplace that treated all employees fairly, offered work flexibility and skill development, and exhibited corporate responsibility. So much so, that younger workers are making efforts toward unionizing. A Gallup survey found that 77% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 approved of unions and were also taking steps toward putting together union-election petitions and unfair-labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Younger workers are also likely to be juggling employment at multiple places, according to a 2022 Paychex survey. Approximately half of Gen Z were employed at two or more jobs, compared to a third of millennials and baby boomers. Among Gen Z especially, "side hustles" were big; Microsoft found that 48% of those surveyed had more than just one. All these jobs and side hustles are evidence that a typical 9-to-5 does not guarantee financial or job security for young workers living paycheck-to-paycheck. Younger generations are finding new ways to work with nothing but a Wi-Fi connection, even if it spells burnout.

3. We hire younger workers because they bring fresh ideas.

With the founding of Google by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their 20s and Facebook's start by Zuckerberg in his college dorm, there's a natural stereotype that younger workers have an inherent knack for generating innovative ideas. As a result, companies can find themselves leaning on younger workers as a source of fresh perspective, seeing older employees as being more risk-averse, more set in their ways, and less willing to grind for a new idea.

The reality is that innovation can come from anywhere, and the age range for success doesn't exactly align with the Forbes 30 Under 30 List. Harvard Business Review found that the average age for startup founders was 45, and research by the Kauffman Foundation shows that the highest rate of entrepreneurship is between the ages of 55 and 64. Add to the fact that the companies founded by these individuals tend to be complex and less "flashy" in fields like biotech or IT hardware, with a lower likelihood of seeing major media attention, and you can see why this stereotype has been exacerbated.

For famous founders and creators, it's not often touted that the beginning of their journey was later in life:

A key piece that plays into successful companies and concepts later in life is age and experience. With more experience, connections, and even financial support, more mature founders have a sturdy foundation to bring ideas to life.

Even in a 9-to-5 job, years of experience and interpersonal relationships result in a bottom-line benefit for companies that retain aging workers. In one study conducted by Birgit Verwonk at Dresden University, senior employees at one of Germany's largest companies were found to be more likely to generate ideas that helped make processes more efficient, yielding greater ROI when compared to younger workers. As a result, the unnamed company in the study decided to phase out its early retirement program.

With some idea of the stereotypes at play, let's spell out how teams can specifically work toward supporting age diversity.

From Hiring to Retention: Cultivating an Age-Diverse Team

Battle the hiring bias. Even if job descriptions are written with skills-based criteria, it may be impossible for employers to avoid subconsciously leaning toward candidates of a certain age or background during the hiring process. The best way to counter this bias is by shifting focus onto the skills and potential of each candidate rather than their age, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic characteristics.

Cactus is a platform that makes it easier for recruiters and employers to do exactly this: shift their focus away from demographic characteristics and toward hard skills and potential. This way, everyone has an equal opportunity to compete for a job based on their merit and not based on preconceived notions.

Involve everyone in training opportunities. Organizations tend to offer fewer training and development opportunities for older employees, which can prevent them from demonstrating their full potential, and, ultimately, limiting career growth. It's important for companies to take active steps to support career trajectories for all employees, especially mature employees.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, a military shipbuilder, was one organization that realized they needed more highly skilled engineers, electricians, and mechanics. They elected to drop the age limits for their apprenticeship program. In five years, they saw that 24% of apprentices joining the program were 30 to 44, and 2% were 45 or older.

Consider the power of gamification. Younger generations tend to use technology for fun, so it makes sense to harness the same idea for skill development at work to help them become more confident in their digital skills.

As one example, Trailhead by Salesforce offers a gamified journey in skill development, using challenges and badges to support learners on their journey. Another company-wide perk? Introducing gamification to company training plans has been shown to enhance employee productivity by 60% and engagement by 50%.

Create a knowledge bridge. Mentoring programs are an effective way to transfer skills between experienced and inexperienced workers. Newer team members upskill quickly and learn to stay on top of the latest industry trends. Experienced workers can also share tips, tricks, and best practices that encourage young professionals to grow in their roles with the company and become stronger leaders. 

At PNC, each of its 64 Employee Business Resource Groups (EBRGs) contains a Diversity and Inclusion Mentoring program to engage employees and help them find their footing in the company. More recently, they created an IGen EBRG to focus on intergenerational relationships, sharing best practices for career journeys and tips to support worker retention.

Rethink workplace flexibility. Whether it's a team-building retreat or a hybrid work scenario, there are many ways teams can support mature workers with mobility issues, vulnerability to illness (e.g., COVID), and emerging health conditions. Flexibility can involve shifting toward more asynchronous work, introducing routine remote workdays, or even offering part-time job or gig opportunities for those unable to commit to a full-time position. 

BMW made ergonomic adjustments to their assembly line to help mature workers feel more comfortable. As a result, they saw a 7% increase in productivity. Marriot also made changes by reconstructing role responsibilities with their Flex Options program to offer roles that are less physically taxing.

More Than a Number: Promoting Age Diversity for the Future of Work

Everyone reading this is on their own unique journey toward retirement and leaving the workforce. 

Aging is inevitable. 

Facing age discrimination in the workplace should not be.

The value of supporting age diversity doesn't solely benefit interpersonal relationships in the workplace and a better bottom line for a company. It also plays a role in the daily life of each employee.

The concept of lifespan is familiar, but healthspan is a lesser-known term. Everyone deserves a long, healthy life with the best emotional, social, physical, and financial well-being possible. Supporting age diversity employs mature employees with decades of experience while maintaining their quality of life on the road to retirement and beyond.

This is especially important to note when considering the number of people seeking additional income in a challenging economy that requires a longer career journey. Today, the average retirement savings for families is $255,130, and 56% of Americans report that they're not on track to retire comfortably. According to Fidelity, Americans have saved only 78% of the money they'll need during retirement. Supporting employees in putting off retirement allows them to continue to build their retirement savings and utilize private healthcare services.

By creating equitable workplaces, you not only create a workplace culture that supports your team members and their future. You're reinforcing the same culture and ethos that will provide the foundation for your own future value and visibility in your journey to retirement.

Have you noticed the impact of age diversity in your workforce? Does your company take specific actions to promote age diversity? Our team wants to hear from you. Email us at info [at] cactus [dot] com.