How To Manage The Multi-Generational Workforce And Avoid Age Discrimination


The multi-generational workforce is characterized by at least five different groups of people. These groups are the baby boomers born before 1964, the generation X-ers who are now somewhere between their late thirties and fifty years of age or so, the generation Y-ers who were born at some time between 1980 and 1990, the I-generation who was born in the 1990’s, and the millennials who were born in the new millennium. Each of these groups have different expectations with regard to work, how they expect to get it done, and what they expect to get out of it.

One underlying context of the multi-gen workforce is that everyone expects a mass wave of retirements due to the aging of the baby boomers. The economic recession stalled the retirement of many boomers but eventually the time for retirement will come. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that government workers have a higher median age than other categories in the labor force.  Additionally, the federal government in particular will be the hardest hit in terms of number of retirees as compared with state and local governments. Large losses of older workers are expected to not only contribute to a large bump in retiree pension obligations but also to cause a tremendous “brain drain” of institutional knowledge.

Meanwhile at the other end of the age spectrum, during a recession when budget funding is restrained, governments don’t offer as many entry-level positions. This is simply because it makes more sense to hire an experienced worker who needs less training and can hit the ground running. Today’s college graduates do not expect to stay in any one job for longer than roughly four years. They also are more likely to concentrate on a policy issue regardless of whether they end up in the public, private, or non-profit work sector. Accordingly, younger workers are more likely to want to make a difference quickly – paying dues is not in the equation. The company culture is an important consideration along with notion of doing meaningful work.

To tap into my own feelings about the multi-gen workforce I took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. The test was for age bias and measures the strength of associations between concepts which in this case represents associations between young people and old people. The test creators found a well-established pattern that says implicit preference affects behavior. In other words, personal biases color choices and subconsciously contribute to discrimination in hiring and promotion among other things. I went into the test thinking I would not have much age bias because I myself am over thirty-five and have elderly parents that I care about.

After taking the ten minute long test, I discovered to my horror that I have a strong automatic preference for young people over old people. That’s not just a preference but a “strong” preference. The test taught me that although I may feel something in my heart I am not immune to bias. I’m sure I am not alone. How do these biases manifest in the workplace? Younger workers may not be perceived as credible despite their knowledge and expertise.  Older workers may be overlooked for training on new technology. Job postings that specifically ask for recent college graduates are biased in favor of younger workers and postings that say a specific number of years of experience are automatically biased toward older workers.

If we know we have biases and we know we have a multi-gen workplace how do we remain balanced, fair, and not run afoul of age discrimination law?  It takes hard work to drop your biases at the door.  A worker survey that offers an age check box and the chance for employees to write-in their thoughts and workplace needs is one way to get a pulse on attitudes.  But, we’ve got to learn more about what makes different people tick in terms of communication differences, behavioral differences and cultural shifts. Can you build a multi-gen work team, can you use team members to coach, groom, and mentor workers?  Try to bridge gaps by uncovering how things are interpreted by others who are not in your age cohort. If you do this you will be able to define problems from all points of view and let your decisions be based on a business goal or priority that has nothing to do with bias. Most importantly, keep tuning in because a new worker is born everyday.

Yolanda Smith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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