Only if you cut your hair

Generational prejudice in the workplace

I was to meet with a new digital analyst to help with some online product pricing. I am in my mid-50’s, wearing ‘standard’ business attire and I use a leather-bound compendium and a fountain pen. He was in his twenties, wearing non-gender specific clothing, cap and a laptop. After fairly cool pleasantries I opened up the compendium and pen and wanted to start the meeting. He said:

“I haven’t seen anyone use that sort of stuff for a very long time…”

I don’t know if he was deliberately being ageist or whether it was just a passing comment, but ever since, I have always thought twice about using the compendium. Am I a dinosaur that puts off young people with an expensive pen?

We didn’t stick around for long either

Similarly, it is commonplace for us older generations (Gen X and Baby Boomers) to whine about “youngsters” and “newbies” who don’t stick around and who are constantly job-hopping. However, research shows that the percentage frequency of people changing jobs has not changed at all from Boomers to Millennials. We just have a rosy (and incorrect) view that things were better in the ‘old days’.

Age discrimination breeds anger and a lack of trust and will negatively affect individual and team performance. The World Health Organisation states that age stereotyping, prejudice and overall discrimination can lead to significant mental and physical health issues in the workplace. Yet why do so many organisations that have diversity and equity programs overlook age in their strategies?

Foosball anyone?

It all starts with us acknowledging, adjusting and even removing our assumptions and stereotypes. We are all guilty, either consciously or sub-consciously, of condemning different generations to those of our own. The young are judged as “inexperienced and has a lot to learn” and someone who is older has “been around too long and stuck in their ways”. We tend to graduate to our own generations in the lunchroom or the bars, exacerbating the problem.

We need to respect that people of all ages can add value and avoid our instant judgement. Look at some of the gains that Millennials have brought us. Sure, some of us are a bit sick of the foosball table, but thankfully the days of sitting in closed door offices are long gone.  Thanks to Millennials, we now have organisations that have to put effort into what their purpose is in the world – how it is contributing to a better society – over and above shareholder returns.

Embracing generational differences and learning from each other are important messages for organisations to improve their productivity. Work teams should have a mix of generations so that all people can get used to working with people of different ages, rather than just sticking to their own age group. And it should not be that the older person is always the manager or leader, just because they have more experience.

Fat Fingers? Find a mentor!

It is a false assumption that the young should always learn from the old. There is much that the younger generations can teach – important technology, social media and embracing social issues as examples. Some organisations now are putting in place “reverse” mentoring or “mutual” mentoring programs. This breaks down the traditional, stereotypical form of mentoring where the younger person is meant to gain enormous wisdom from the older person. The program allows for both participants to learn from and help each other.

Seasoned Professional? Pass the chili!

Recruitment is another place to look at ageist stereotypes. If your job ads include terms such as “seasoned” or “must be able to handle competing demands” you are reducing the pool of younger people that will apply (and women as well, but that is another matter). Similarly, if your web site or company images display totally open plan offices with ping pong tables and an open bar, you are deliberately disengaging older applicants.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that very few organisations can afford to limit themselves to a narrow age group for talent. Hire people from all age groups and remove the assumptions that a person in their 60’s will be a drain on the organisation due to health issues, or a younger person won’t have the experience to lead a team. Do you really want an organisation full of forty somethings worried sick about mortgages and school fees? (yes, another stereotype…)

Long, Long time ago

Thirty years ago, when I was in my twenties, I had long hair, past my shoulder. I was running public training courses in new PC based software such as WordPerfect and Word. I received great feedback and I enjoyed it. When I went for my performance and salary review, I was told that I should receive a pay rise, but I would only get it if I cut my hair.

Maybe the world has changed a bit since then, but we still have our challenges. Let’s continue to improve generational acceptance and build our teams without stereotypes and learn from each other. It will improve our own outlook on life but also deliver better outcomes for our businesses.