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Minding the Generational Gap
This is the second in a series based on social media suggestions for articles related to Human Resources. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting ageism as a topic. But I am glad it was suggested because I have a lot to say.
I am myself in a protected class thanks to the ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act). However, I do not believe I have experienced ageism. I say this because I have always been told I look younger than my age. Although, I suppose it could be ageism in the sense I am not considered mature. So when one thinks about it, ageism is a two-way street. It is not necessarily the standard “older than the hills” discrimination but instead “she’s too young to have the knowledge and experience for this job” discrimination. Considering this, raise your hand if you have ever felt subjected to ageism.
Admittedly, I have ranted about Millennials and the tell-tale traits associated with this generation. Am I ashamed? Absolutely. I have blatantly committed ageism. Now, have I directed ageism at any one person? No. Nevertheless, in the future I must remind myself we all have strengths and weaknesses, including myself. Each generation brings something to the table.
Let’s take a look at how good ole Merriam-Webster defines ageism: prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. Prejudice simply means to pre-judge. But let’s dig deeper with the help of Merriam-Webster: prejudice is the preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. BAM! This hits home because when you break it down in this manner, I am certain we have all committed prejudice at one (or many) time(s) in our individual lives.
So what happens when opinion not based on experience is directed at you? How does this make you feel? Has this kept you from being promoted or getting a raise or transferring to a job more suited to you? Have you felt your voice at work is not heard due to your age? These are all questions with valid answers. These are questions worth asking yourself, particularly if you are the one committing ageism.
I’ve said it a million times: we all deserve to be happy in the workplace. After all, happy workers tend to be more productive and will remain with the organization longer. Our work environment should not cause undue stress. All employees should be held to the same expectations: come to work on time, complete assigned tasks, behave appropriately. We should not be in the habit of pigeon holing individuals based on prejudiced beliefs about age. Remember, we are four—FOUR—generations in the workplace today.
People are working well past age 70: Traditionalists. Baby Boomers follow Traditionalists and both groups have a strong work ethic, company commitment, and do not typically stir the organizational pot. Baby Boomers lived through the free love and revolutionary ideology of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The next generation is Gen X—the children of Baby Boomers—who grew up as latchkey children, developing independence early in life. Millennials then entered the workforce within the last 10 years and have been labeled lazy, needy, and selfish. However, their approach stems from growing up with technology, convenience, and high praise. We have Millennials to thank for the pursuit of work-life balance.
Leaders within organizations must foster inclusion and bridge any communication gaps between generations. Team building exercises aren’t going to lead to magical moments wherein everyone starts relating better. Instead, leading by example should reduce and potentially eliminate ageism. By debunking the myths that individuals within one age group share identical approaches to work, unity develops. After all, aren’t employees ultimately on the same team with the same goal of contributing to the success of the organization? It should never be us against them or every man for his self.
Organizations would do well to hire and retain employees from diverse age groups. Diversity is not solely about race or culture. Ageism plays a heavy role in diversity. Traditionalist and Baby Boomer employees can possess vast knowledge and incomparable experience. While the older workforce may be paid higher wages, organizations reap the reward of this invaluable combination. Nonetheless, Millennials bring a fresh set of eyes and ideas that may help organizations propel into the 21st Century. Meanwhile, Gen Xer’s stay the course and get the job done without much supervision.
Consider The Breakfast Club film as a prime example of diversity and the importance of recognizing and embracing differences. Whether it is age, race, culture, sex, or religion, we all have value and our individualism has value. Journalist Walter Lippman said, “When we all think alike, then no one is thinking.”
Often times, discrimination is borne out of fear of the unknown. Overcome this fear by first confronting ageism. Ponder the idea we may not all be the same, but that is okay. Take it a step further and open up dialogue with members of dissimilar age groups. Gregory Berns, author of Iconoclast, writes, “The way in which we interact with each other is, in many ways, more important than what our own eyes and ears tell us.” Falling into the trap of believing stereotypes is dangerous.
Groupthink is another trap we may fall into with our peers and coworkers. Think of the cliques currently existing at your job. Now ask yourself if you are in a clique. Be honest. What kinds of conversations do you have in the break room or during lunch? Do they center on group member opinions about other workers or do you talk about the latest episode of Survivor? Be conscientious of this and be the voice to question groupthink.
Rebel against stereotypes. Be willing to bridge generational gaps. Lead by example. Erase ageism by engaging one another, embracing the similarities, and celebrating the differences.
Berns, G. (2010). Iconoclast: A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
6/7/2019 08:10:00 pm
This is a great article. Very well written and thought out. Thank you.
David B Wade
6/10/2019 10:01:09 am
Interesting, and it is a bit alarming that I am now subject to agesim myself, as a Network Engineer. I will note that not all Gen X are in fact the children of Boomers; my parents were actually the 'Traditionalists' or 'Greatest Generation' and simply had my sister and me later than is traditional. As you touch on, discussing generational traits can be useful on a demographic scale, but can easily be fraught when applying it to individual cases. What is true is that a lot of the traditional paradigms need to be vigorously examined (as do newer, trendier modes of thought). This is true on a public policy level, as Social Security was never designed to handle decades of payouts to individual workers due to life expectancy differentials; that employment has shifted and that it is commonplace for people to work up into their 70's now (this is particularly jarring when we see government workers get retirement and full benefits in their 50's). So Groupthink - the uncritical acceptance of a common mode of thought - whatever its origin - is one of the things that a good org needs to fight against. In my experience, this is rather an uphill battle, to put it politely.
6/10/2019 12:58:06 pm
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Creator: That makes me sound all powerful. I suppose I am in many ways. Hi! My name's Amy and I've been practicing HR for twelve years now. No big deal. I am here to offer fresh perspective on HR topics and topics about the world we live in and life in general.