By Gerry Valentine
“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?”— Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Facebook, addressing a Y Combinator startup conference at Stanford University in 2007
This quote is just one of many that has fueled accusations of ageism and other forms of discrimination at high-tech companies. But Silicon Valley giants and young leaders are not the only ones who engage in age-related bias; I have heard many Baby Boomer leaders complain about “self-centered, irresponsible” Millennials who lack “work ethic.”
These attitudes are disturbingly prevalent in many companies, and they are damaging. They expose businesses to the legal risks of age discrimination, and they cause companies to miss the important opportunities offered by age diversity. Let us take a look at a more conscious approach to leadership, and how building a high-performing multigenerational workplace is good business.
THE CONSCIOUS BUSINESS CASE FOR AGE DIVERSITY
For conscious leaders, the business case for age diversity is driven by two of the three “Ps” in our triple bottom line — profit and people — as well as by the need to adapt to the exigencies of a dramatically changing workforce. As with other types of diversity, age diversity improves innovation and problem-solving, and thus increases profits; I will say more about why below. From the “people” perspective, fostering age diversity helps our companies better reflect the communities we work in — communities that include people of many different ages — and thus makes our companies better citizens in those communities.
A DRAMATICALLY CHANGING WORKFORCE
Today’s workforce includes three very different generations, and they are represented in almost equal proportions: 29 percent Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), 34 percent Generation X (born 1965–1980), and 35 percent Millennials (born after 1980). That is because the number of working Millennials has increased significantly, while Baby Boomers are living longer than previous generations have and are delaying retirement. Nearly half of Boomers do not plan to retire until after age 66, and 10 percent say they will never retire.
Each of these generations grew up in a vastly different time, and brings a different set of expectations, values, styles, and talents to an organization. This presents leaders with a unique set of challenges and, if leveraged properly, some important opportunities as well.
1 - DRIVE INNOVATION BY CHALLENGING ASSUMPTIONS AND BIASES
The first step in building a high-performing multigenerational workplace is challenging age related assumptions and biases. For example, the assumption that younger people are inherently “smarter” is not supported by data. In fact, some research suggests that some mental abilities peak in middle age. On average, people between age 40 and 64 are better in cognitive areas like inductive reasoning, identifying patterns, and making accurate judgments about the world around them. That is because our brains continue to grow and build new connections until late middle age. On the other hand, the average 25-year-old brain has higher processing speed and is better at learning new skills and memorizing. When leaders discard assumptions and biases, they get the innovation benefits of age diversity: combining younger employees (who typically learn and memorize faster) with older workers (who are typically better at cognitive reasoning and problem-solving) improves innovation.
2 - ESTABLISH A CULTURE OF MUTUAL RESPECT
A fundamental part of building a high-performing multigenerational workplace is establishing a culture of mutual respect across the generations. It means demonstrating that everyone’s talents are valuable to the company, and not tolerating behavior that creates divisions between the generations. For example, I know one leader, a Baby Boomer, who has an interesting reply for complaints about “self-involved” Millennials. She talks about how Baby Boomers were dubbed the “me generation” in the 1970s for their indulgences like healthy diets, exercise, and belief in self-fulfillment. She explains how her decision to have a career rather than children was once viewed as a “narcissistic” choice for a woman, and how she identifies with Millennials’ plight. It makes an insightful statement that sets a clear standard for what she expects at her company.
Other steps conscious leaders can take to establish an environment of mutual respect between the generations include deliberately hiring for age diversity (from Millennials to Baby Boomers), constructing work teams that include multiple ages, and actively acknowledging the unique contributions from employees of all generations.
3 - PROVIDE A COMPELLING VISION AS A POINT OF ALIGNMENT
One key difference that is often cited about Millennials is that they want a sense of purpose and fulfillment out of work. Sometimes that is criticized as “wanting too much out of a job,” but it is actually a golden opportunity for savvy leaders. One of the key attributes of successful companies is having a sense of shared purpose or vision, so your Millennials are actually tipping you off about something you need to do anyway. Create a compelling vision, communicate it relentlessly, and use it as a way to align employees of all generations.
4 - PROVIDE CHANCES TO LEARN THROUGH MENTORING AND REVERSE MENTORING
One thing that Millennials and Baby Boomers share is a desire for learning, but they often need to learn about different things. For example, a Baby Boomer might need to learn the latest social media trends, and a Millennial might need help on decision-making or communication. A good strategy can be to create mentoring and reverse mentoring relationships in the workplace so each party gets what they need from the other. I had firsthand experience with this a few years ago when a young woman I had mentored on career development reverse-mentored me on social media. We ultimately grew to be good friends and we still seek each other out for advice.
ULTIMATELY, IT IS JUST GOOD LEADERSHIP
Perhaps the most interesting thing about establishing a high-performing multigenerational workplace is that it is ultimately just an exercise in good leadership. Driving innovation, challenging assumptions and biases, setting standards of behavior, fostering mutual respect, establishing a compelling vision, and providing learning opportunities should be priorities for leaders in any high-performing company; managing multiple generations is simply a good reminder of that.