Age is just a number in business

In the second of a series of articles examining Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in the workplace, Margarita Lindahl looks more closely at the sometimes neglected topic of age diversity.

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A recent conversation with my 88 year-old grandmother – a former university maths lecturer – sparked my thinking about diversity in relation to age in the workplace and the benefits of cross-generational collaboration. During her career, the younger lecturers were expected to listen to and follow the lead of the older ones. Age was a symbol of wisdom, experience and predominance.

Today, I think we all instinctively realise how beneficial it can be for different generations to collaborate and learn from each other…but does this work in reality? I was eager to look more closely at the subject and to gauge the thoughts of my colleagues. 

With Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) top of the mind for many businesses, it was interesting to see a statistic that only 8% of organisations actively take steps to address generational workforce issues. The respected authors of an Harvard Business Review article on this subject and a book on how to overcome generational conflict, called Gentelligence, believe this is a missed opportunity. 

They say: “Age-diverse teams are valuable because they bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information, and networks. If managed effectively, they can offer better decision-making, more-productive collaboration, and improved overall performance — but only if members are willing to share and learn from their differences.” 

Interestingly an EY study addressing Generational Preferences in the Workplace showed that Millennials also felt strongly on the subject with 76% saying they would leave an employer if Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives were not offered. 

And this was a point also supported by a cross-generational range of my colleagues when I gathered them together for a round table discussion at Panasonic. It was clear that the older colleagues saw very different attitudes towards work from their younger colleagues. One said: “I see from Gen Z candidates that I interview and employ that there is an enthusiasm to work hard for the business but an expectation that they will work to their contract. For example, in the past if I was expected to travel for work, I would accept that there might be long days or travel outside of normal working hours. But many today would expect time off in lieu of this additional time spent. It is a very different attitude to when I first started work.”

But they were keen to point out that this change in attitude was not a bad thing. There was a general consensus across the generations that a sensible work/life balance was a good thing for both employees and the business. There was mutual agreement that if people were “clear on their work purpose” and “given the flexibility and freedom to work” then productivity and job satisfaction would be high.

Younger colleagues in the group also stressed that the attitude to work/life balance was in part taught to them by the older generation. One said that a former manager had given them the following very valuable advice: “You don’t have to work long hours every week to get ahead. As long as the work gets done – enjoy your youth!” Another remembered that: “My father once asked me: Do you work to live or live to work? When you find the answer to this question, you will know which path to follow.” 

There was a clear appreciation of a cross-generational working environment, as long as there was mutual respect and a supportive culture. 

One younger colleague said: “I’ve always felt comfortable working with people that are older than me. I value their experience. They have a lot of knowledge to share. For example, if I can learn from their mistakes before I repeat them myself, then that is very valuable. The older generation has perspective and the younger generation can bring fresh thinking. As long as there is mutual respect, the individuals and the business benefits.”

When this mutual respect breaks down, there are clearly challenges. One student intern participant said: “I have met a CEO who was incredibly respectful and considerate and a few middle managers that were dismissive and barely looked at me. The difference this can have on my motivation and commitment to the organisation is huge.”

Reflecting on the conversation with my colleagues, I was inspired by the comments from across the generations. The easy stereotypes of the older generation being stuck in their ways and the younger generation being work-shy and unmotivated is clearly not true and not opinions held by my colleagues or visible within Panasonic Connect Europe.

Moving forward, an even more structured approach to bringing together age diverse teams may pay big dividends for businesses in terms of productivity, culture and job satisfaction. It reminded me that I enjoy working in the multi-generational world and that a return to my grandmother’s environment would be a step in the wrong direction. This truly reflects her opinion as well. In the words of my wise, 88-year old granny: “Let’s look ahead, not back.”