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Age diversity in the workplace


DiversityIn the final article in her series exploring the findings of the five components of the Adecco Institute’s ‘Demographic Fitness Survey’, Donna Murphy advises on the tools employers can use to meet the needs of workers of different ages.

For the first time in history, four generations of workers in the same workplace is commonplace. Never before have employers and employees encountered this degree of age diversity. These four actively contributing generations have been classified, according to age, into the following groups: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y.

Each of these generations can be broadly characterised by their (often divergent) attitudes toward work. Traditionalists are hard working, dedicated, serious and focused, and are more likely than any of the other generations to have spent their entire career with a single employer. Although they are steadily retiring from the workforce, traditionalists remain connected and influential.

“Employers face an unprecedented challenge in meeting the (sometimes competing) needs of each of these [different generations] contributors.”

Baby Boomers, having been raised by Traditionalist parents, have a strong work ethic, and value personal growth, hard work, individuality, and equality of the sexes. They question authority and led the trend toward less-hierarchical work structures; this generation started the shift away from long-term relationships, both personal (through divorce and second marriages) and professional (through multiple employers, downsizing, reengineering, and second careers). Boomers are 30% of the population, but represent the heart of today’s management. They are also leading a trend toward delayed retirement, with nearly 80% wanting to work at least part-time during retirement (AARP, Baby Boomers Envision Retirement II, 2004).

Generation X, children of the Baby Boomers, are a relatively small generation, sometimes called the ‘baby bust’. They are self-reliant, optimistic, and confident. They value education, independence, and parenting above work. Consequently, they do not have a strong loyalty to an employer, and have developed a repertoire of skills and experiences that they take to the employer that best meets their needs. They seek balance in their lives as they raise their families.

The newest employees entering the workplace are members of Generation Y, also called the millennials, the internet generation, and Echo Boomers, because they are, relatively, the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. They are comfortable with diversity, in race, ethnic group, and sexual orientation, having had exposure to differences from an early age: one-third of this generation are members of a minority group. Having been raised on computer technology, they are accustomed to immediacy and multi-tasking. They value professional development, strive to work faster and better, and want creative challenges and projects. They value flexibility, options, and the ability to work part-time or to leave the workforce temporarily.

Employers face an unprecedented challenge in meeting the (sometimes competing) needs of each of these contributors, but corporate success depends on working to create an environment where every employee is working effectively on common goals. So what is an employer to do? The Adecco Institute Demographic Fitness Survey on the UK produces some insights into the types of tools that employers are adopting. 62% of all UK firms promote mentoring, a valuable tool for promoting inclusion, intergenerational understanding, and effective information transfer. Mentoring is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to build cooperation within a workforce, and one that we expect to see increase in usage. Mentoring enables mentors to share their knowledge, promoting knowledge transfer, while building strong interpersonal relationships that encourage intergenerational understanding.

More than half (51%) of UK firms offer a performance-oriented pay system, critical to maintaining motivation among younger workers. Traditional systems that reward years of service with higher pay, while still pervasive in many organisations, have the unintended side-effect of making younger workers feel that their contributions are somehow less valuable. Pay systems that reward the quality of work performed ensure that younger workers feel valued, and build commitment among generations that don’t have strong ties to employers.

In other important areas, however, UK firms have considerable room for improvement.

“Raising awareness of the expectations and work habits of employees of different ages can be essential to ensuring high levels of productivity.”

Employees can benefit from practical training that helps them to recognise the differences between workers of different ages, and to identify and defuse potential areas of conflict. Only 32% of UK firms are currently conducting such training. Raising awareness of the expectations and work habits of employees of different ages can be essential to ensuring high levels of productivity, and to prevent the loss of valuable employees because they perceive the workplace to be unfair. Managers need to understand that the same behaviours, exhibited by employees of different age groups, can be sending vastly different signals. Improving managers’ understanding of these behaviours can dramatically improve individual and group performance.

Employers can also work proactively to create environments where members of each age group feel comfortable. Sometimes, this means creating groups where all workers are of a similar age (26% of companies do this) and sometimes this means creating groups comprised of workers across the age spectrum (35% of employers are actively doing this.) Junior/senior roundtables can also be a valuable platform for the exchange of ideas and the promotion of understanding, but only 18% of companies use them.

Long-term business success depends on a strong, cohesive, and effective workforce. Until recently, businesses have enjoyed a relatively homogeneous workforce, and paid little attention to diversity. The rise of multi-culturalism and the influx of women into the workforce put diversity on the agenda, and most firms still actively promote and train their workforce on key issues such as cultural diversity and sexual harassment. Age diversity calls for a fresh perspective on diversity. Age diversity, as well as cultural and sexual diversity, can affect your company#s ability to meet goals, improve productivity, and communicate effectively with diverse clients.

Demographic realities, including the ageing of the workforce, mean that companies must both develop new programmes to attract younger workers, retain existing employees and entice older productive workers to delay retirement. Those that succeed will enjoy the benefits of a strong, productive and committed workforce that will be a unique competitive advantage.

Previous articles
Should HR managers care about employee health?
Do you know where your knowledge is?
Lifelong learning: Jump on the bandwagon
Career management: A strategic tool

Donna Murphy is managing director of the Adecco Institute. For more information, please email her

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