Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.
As a kid, Jemma Barbarise-Kelley didn’t just have her parents to worry about.
Both sets of her grandparents were active in raising her — mom’s side from Greece and dad’s from Italy. It was the kind of multigenerational family that immigrants are known for.
That upbringing made it more natural for her to expect workplaces to be similar. Yet, especially among American tech companies, Barbarise-Kelley found little age diversity. The young male disruptor became an early trope of software companies, and it’s a problem.
Now the COO of Lifebrand, Barbarise-Kelley, 28, is trying to do something different at the social media monitoring company she cofounded. Her team is now over 50, with 31 full-timers in the US alongside a mix of contractors, interns and full-timers abroad. (The company was valued at over $100 million at their last raise; Barbarise-Kelley says that’s stayed firm amid today’s current rocky waters). The team she leads with founder and CEO TJ Colaiezzi reflect a range of ages and cultures.
Economists typically refer to people aged 25 to 54 as those in their “prime working years.” A multigenerational workforce is one that has major contributions from those before and after those years.
There are obstacles to both because age bias cuts both ways. Too young, and you might be assumed inexperienced. Too old, and you might be assumed out of touch.
This is no isolated issue. In 2021, the World Health Organization released a major report on ageism noting that “both older and younger adults are often disadvantaged in the workplace.” The accompanying survey and meta analysis argued that half of the world’s population holds ageist beliefs. Especially troubling since the American workforce is aging — the average age of a US employee is 42 and rising.
Though a global issue, tech and other companies that hire knowledge workers are especially motivated to do something about this.
“Why limit who you can hire because of some preconceived notion you don’t even realize you have?” Barbarise-Kelley said.
How to support young teammates
Before the young tech founder trope, there was the stereotype of the intern who was only used for coffee runs. In the 2010s, millennials demanded more. Still, it’s easy to view interns, entry-level staff and other junior teammates as minor contributors.
Avoid that by setting the tone in onboarding and org-wide communication. With a clearly defined vision, mission values, high-performing teammates outside leadership can connect their work to organizational goals. Create space for younger and more senior team members to interact. This can be done at social events or teamwide meetings, or by scheduling random gatherings with a virtual tool like Donut. Remove age and years served from promotion and performance reviews.
If you do that (and succeed in developing an individual contributor program), you’ll wind up with teammates who manage direct reports who are older than they are. No need to consider that awkward. Remind your rising stars that though life experience certainly helps, great managers can come at any age.
“It’s your job [as a manager] to find those answers, not have those answers,” Barbarise-Kelley said.
How to invest in older teammates
In proudly disrupting industry norms, software and internet companies flouted traditional experience enough that they earned a reputation for ageism. That’s why a broader lens on diversity, equity and inclusion increasingly includes older employees.
“Most people using technology are not 18 or 20, they’re much older,” Barbarise-Kelley reminded.
That WHO report from last year noted that older employees are more likely to be skipped over for professional development — even if they might work for any given employer longer than a younger employee. That’s an example of bias at work.
Managers instead need to focus on whether they can do the job, and be additive to team culture.
As Barbarise-Kelley put it: “You’re not going to attract and retain older employees if you don’t respect the experience they bring.”
Where employer brand marketing fits
Like any effort to diversify your workforce, companies have to put in the work, and make sure candidates actually know that work’s been done.
“Be thoughtful about why younger and older employees can thrive at your organization,” the COO said. “Then communicate that externally.”
That’s another topic for employer brand marketing, and for encouraging happy employees to share their experience with their own networks. Happy employees tend to have managers invested in them. Not unlike how Barbarise-Kelley had more than one generation looking after her as she was growing up.
“To build a rapport with someone you report to or reports to you, someone who is young or old, either way, all management is the same,” Barbarise-Kelley said. “Explaining how what you’re working on relates to the ultimate success of the organization.”-30-