Any Baby Boomer watching the final season of “Mad Men” understood exactly why advertising genius Don Draper set off on a cross-country, soul-seeking pilgrimage after suffering through a meeting filled with younger versions of his own smart self. Ageism hurts. And getting older stinks – especially in front of co-workers under the harsh glare of unforgiving florescent lights.
Like it or not, the graying of corporate America is upon us. There are more people 55 and older active in the workforce than in the past 30 years. Further, those AARP members are working longer than ever before, no doubt scared silly by those relentless commercials sneering at their paltry retirement savings.
Now, add this to the mix: For the first time ever, there are four generations at work. Whether you’re a mom-and-pop shop or a large conglomerate, chances are you employ a mix of Millennials, the newest generation, followed by Generation X, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists, born from 1925 to 1945.
Haydn Shaw, author of Sticking Points, warns that failing to get everyone working together, despite generational differences, can lead to “misunderstanding, irritation and stereotyping that hurts results and gets teams stuck.”
In other words, look under the surface of any company gathering and what you’ll find is a roiling corporate Fight Club of emotions and unvoiced feelings. The workers over 40 are suffering from trophy wife syndrome – the fear of being traded in for newer, shinier models. But if they raise those concerns, they risk being dismissed as a crotchety old-timer muttering by the water cooler, “You can take your ‘think young, hire young’ mantra and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
And the younger workers are like excited puppies, bouncing around their cubicles over the prospect of putting gray hairs out to pasture, while still fretting that their eagerness and energy pales in comparison to broad experience and a varied skill set. No wonder companies are starting to cry “help!”
It’s why workplace experts are offering seminars to help employers guide their staff in maximizing the potential of a multigenerational team. Whether you turn to formal solutions or not, a good first step is to get employees to speak frankly and freely about being young – and old – at the office.
The passion in the responses might surprise you. Below are just a few from a recent query on the benefits of hiring older versus younger workers:
- From a 30-something: “Experience, experience, experience. Someone good with clients, that takes experience.”
- From a 40-something: “Employers are obsessed with hiring younger.”
- From a 50-something: “Less drama and posturing.”
- From a 59-year-old job seeker: “I assumed having worked for the same place for 25 years was a good thing, but in actuality it often worked against me, and was almost always considered a negative.”
- From a 60-something: “I hired a 70 year old. She had a wonderful attitude and a great work ethic. One of our best employees.”
No one expects all co-workers to roast s’mores and sing “Kumbaya” together every day. Every generation is stubbornly, wonderfully different and smart employers will recognize and celebrate the value that each employee, whether they’re 25 or 65, can bring to the table. Ultimately, performance should determine workplace security – not age.