Given the choice, if put on a team at work, many of us would choose to work with people like ourselves … people we connect with, can relate to and who share similar experiences. Sure, we want each person on the team to be able to carry his or her professional weight, but we also want the experience of working on the project to be pleasant. We want communication to go smoothly. And we don’t want a lot of conflict holding up progress.
Businesses and bosses, by contrast, are encouraged to seek diversity. They’re advised of the benefits of conflict. Reminded that when workers come from varying ethnicities, experiences, sexes, religions, ages, etc., it brings a wider range of perspectives—encourages broader thinking, more diverse solutions and a more complete consideration of potential obstacles. Smooth, conflict-free communication? It’s not necessarily an objective.
Age diversity, while nothing new, is becoming more common as retirement ages are extended and life expectancies rise. It’s likely that the 25-year-old will be working side by side with the 60-year-old in many offices. As with all diversity, it’s important to consider what workers of various ages bring to the table—the advantages of their unique perspectives and approaches.
I recently attended the retirement party of a man I worked with way back when. He was about 50 at the time he was hired by our company and he became the first person I trained. His dry, unexpected sense of humor made him a welcome addition and kept our team laughing and on its toes. His steady, unflappable pace both intrigued and irritated me. And although his computer skills were awkward initially, he quickly learned to troubleshoot and maneuver like a pro. His loyalty for the organization is now obvious as well—as he celebrates his retirement with this same organization—while I’ve been gone more than 15 years.
Ironically, some years later, I found myself starting a job where I was the oldest employee in my department. The technology was new to me and I was expected to “just have a look around.” I observed as my new impatient, young boss strived for the right balance in training me (taking a wide berth around micromanaging). I watched as younger colleagues panicked through a buy-out, abandoning ship before stopping to consider the potential opportunities of staying put. I felt calm, capable and glad of my years of business experience.
What older workers teach us:
- Loyalty has a place in business. Sticking with an organization or boss has rewards. Older workers will tell you that when you find a company that treats you well, stick around. 401(k)s grow bigger. Opportunities for promotions open up. Knowledge and seniority accumulates.
- Interpersonal skills are stronger with experience. Personal interactions get better with practice. Older workers are usually skilled at building relationships. They’ve already made plenty of missteps and learned how to listen well and navigate business and personal work relationships.
- Don’t panic when facing change or hardship. Mergers, economic downturns, bankruptcies, changes in leadership—these aren’t new occurrences in the business world. Experience has taught older workers to stay calm when facing the unknown. Opportunities go to those willing to roll with challenges.
- They bring wisdom. Years of accumulated experiences give older workers more crystalized intelligence. This intelligence can make them more intuitive and better able to anticipate outcomes or reactions.
What younger workers teach us:
- Job hopping has advantages and it pays to be brave. Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities. Don’t be afraid to keep your eyes open and bravely step away from a dead-end job or failing company when you need to.
- Be comfortable with new technology. Don’t know how to use the new software? Just dive in. It’s fun.
- They bring raw intelligence. Heightened abstract reasoning can make it easier for younger workers to learn new skills, suggests research from the American Psychological Association. Training them doesn’t usually include breaking any bad, well-established habits.
Hiring workers of varying ages can bring unique strengths to any company. Age diversity can benefit organizations when these different generations are positioned to work together … where they learn to understand and appreciate what the other brings to the table.