Quick: How long is the average career? If you guessed 40 years, you would’ve been right a few years ago. But new research from Stanford Center on Longevity predicts the majority of today’s 5-year-olds will work at least 60 years (and live to be 100). So naturally, in a 60-year career, there’ll be times when people are working with colleagues significantly older and younger than them.
Already, for the first time ever, there are five generations in the labor force. With that kind of age diversity, it’s important to understand and embrace the benefits of intergenerational teams. And they’re significant: A recent World Economic Forum study predicts our multi-generational workforces will “create a more efficient, productive and profitable economy and raise GDP per capita by almost 19% in three decades.”
The report highlights the notable culture, productivity, performance and competitive benefits of age diversity in the workplace, including “enhanced team performance through skills matching — knowledge sharing between junior and senior employees, resulting in intergenerational learning and collaborating.”
Another consideration: today’s tight labor market. Attracting and retaining employees near the “typical” retirement age could help ease the talent crunch. PwC estimates postponing retirement could add $3.5 trillion to the economies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 38 member countries. Besides the bottom-line benefits, a lot of people want to keep working. Age 65 isn’t a magic number. The majority of my friends who are 65 and older have chosen not to retire, even though they have the means to do so. Fortunately, business leaders seem to be on board. An AARP survey reports that 83% say multigenerational workforces are key to growth and long-term success. Here’s why:
Diversity drives innovation
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is convinced that diversity of “the observable” like age and the “unobservable” like personality type, is fuel for innovation and problem-solving. And business leaders seem to agree: An AARP survey reports that 83% say multigenerational workforces are key to growth and long-term success.
At DS+CO, the fresh perspective of team members new to the workforce combined with the experience of veterans is a secret sauce of our creative, strategic solutions. Because the more diverse approaches, thought and communication styles and technical skills contributing to a project, the more relevant and meaningful the outcomes.
There’s even evidence to prove it: Studies by the Institute for Employment Research and the German Economic Institute show a 1.5% greater likelihood of achieving product or process innovation for each increase in variance of workforce age. Team members of all ages are more productive when on mixed-age teams. And teams with greater age diversity perform at higher levels, especially when solving complex problems.
Growth mindsets keep growing
Every team member brings a unique set of experiences and skills, and we can all learn from each other. While mentorships traditionally involve a senior team member taking a junior one under their wing, two-way cross-generational mentorships are the way of the future. They allow us to “spread the wealth” of knowledge, build resilience, and nurture bonds and camaraderie.
For example, younger team members are often digital natives and can help senior staff learn technical skills, data analysis, new media options and cultural trends. They may be familiar with new applications and technologies, approaches and methods that can make your operations more efficient and productive. Senior team members may have greater business acumen and industry knowledge. They may have fine-tuned their professional judgement and instincts over the years and have a deep understanding of the company’s legacy and client relationships. Everyone benefits when we pass along these capabilities and insights.
When a Boomer or Gen X team member shares their industry contacts, for example, they help promote young careers and new business opportunities. When Gen Z and Millennial team members teach time-saving methods and train on digital technologies, they help their colleagues advance and stay current. We learn from the past as we prepare for the future, creating paths for knowledge transfer and paving the way for tomorrow’s leaders.
Upskilling and reskilling is for everyone
When budgeting for training and development, it’s natural to focus on your younger employees. But remember, your experienced team members may be lifelong learners, curious and hungry to grow in their roles, too. Stanford researchers report 31% of 50-92-year-olds “identify, prioritize, adopt and actively pursue goals that are both personally meaningful and contribute to the greater good.”
Without opportunity to stretch and contribute, they could become frustrated and look elsewhere for challenge and meaning; so provide funds and, more importantly, paid time off for everyone to upskill and reskill when appropriate. The company will benefit when team members gain and contribute new skills — and renewed excitement and motivation.
Generations are man-made constructs
Age is a number, not a personality trait. Though we refer to the Silent Generation or Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z, we do ourselves a disservice by characterizing each age group so definitely. Especially because the boundaries are so nebulous. Yes, each generation grew up in a different time in history and was influenced by different environmental, political, social and cultural factors. But not everyone is shaped by those experiences in the same way.
Do we really think a 9-year-old Gen Z-er today will have much in common with a 24-year-old Gen Z-er when they enter the labor force? How similar are the life experiences and workplace behaviors of 25- and 40-year-old Millennials? Generalizations like “entitled” can’t possibly describe the world’s 1.8 billion of them. Assumptions like “technically inept” reduce the 70.68 million Baby Boomers in the US to a narrow stereotype.
I think we’re more united across the generations than ever right now. We’re all united in the shared common experience we’re living through as the pandemic turned the work world and our lives upside down. So, while it’s important to learn the context and understand the realities each generation faced, we need to look at people as individuals. We’re individual team members united by a strong workplace culture.
Besides, it’s more fun
Working side-by-side with people of all ages is way more interesting and fun. I remember being in college, living in a dorm on a suburban campus, thinking, “My whole world and all my interactions are with people 18-22 years old. That’s just weird and unreal.”
If you describe a company culture as being “like a family,” well, you need people of all ages to create a rich, family fabric woven with meaningful relationships and connections across generations. Like a family, we all want to make a difference and are all working toward our common goals. And we’re more alike than we are different.
Lauren Dixon is board chair of Dixon Schwabl + Co., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a Best Place to Work.