Company Culture
DEI / Ethics / Social justice / Workplace culture

OK boomer: Multigenerational workplaces thrive on mutual respect

A workplace that includes people across the age spectrum can be effective and fulfilling for everyone involved — especially if everyone involved is willing to adjust their thinking. Here's what to know.

If you're not hiring multigenerationally, you're missing out on a more well-rounded workplace. (Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels)
The tech age has brought with it a power shift.

Through most of the 20th century, it was common for a worker to start with a company in their 20s and stay there through retirement at 65, at which time the next generation, who followed the same path, was ready to take their place.

Kind of like royal ascension, but for accountants and ad men with good pensions.

Today, multigenerational workplaces, especially in tech, are not so cut and dry. The industry as a whole skews young. A millennial founder (born roughly between 1981 and 1996) may be well under 40 and inclined to employ people in their generation and younger; meanwhile, older generations are pivoting into tech mid-career and often continue working past 65.

Hiring people over 40 then becomes a choice for these tech companies — part of its diversity, equity and inclusion plan.

It isn’t always easy.

“As soon as someone finds out how old I actually am, I get this air of dismissal, as if I can’t be quite in step with the industry because I can’t be young enough to understand it,” said Gloria Bell, now the founder of the Inspiring Tech Foundation, in a February 2022 interview with Bell pivoted from the insurance industry to tech 15 years ago when she was in her 40s.

Here’s how company leaders can do better:

Why should a tech company with a young workforce consider increasing its generational diversity?

Benefits that come with hiring with generational diversity in mind include the following:

  • Like any kind of diversity, it brings new perspectives to the table that can improve the work that you do, whether it’s making a product more user-friendly or a service more accessible.
  • Even if an employee from the Baby Boomer (born around 1946 to 1964) or Gen X (born around 1965 to 1989) generations is fairly new to a given type of technology or the field overall, they will have years of experience in something, whether it’s marketing, design or child raising, and that expertise has value for your team.
  • It increases intra-team mentoring possibilities, including cross-generational mentoring where a younger employee can help an older but newer employee with the latest trends — or vice versa, if the older but newer employee is the expert.
  • It offers the opportunity for all employees to broaden their horizons through workplace relationships.

Adjusting to multigenerational diversity

Employees from the older generations may need to adjust to your work style and culture, but ditch the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” People over 50 can learn coding as well as anyone in their 20s and have been adapting to new technology for decades.

Communication, and a certain amount of concession, is one key to keeping the intergenerational workplace happy. Boomers might prefer to use the phone over Slack, for example, while Gen Z (born around 1997 to 2012) employees may get annoyed by phone calls and insist on text. One solution in that case could be a compromise where you limit the brief relaying of information to Slack, but, for longer conversations, make it a call on the phone or Zoom — and apply that balanced communication style to the whole team.

The culture question

When hiring, don’t assume an older generation applicant won’t be a cultural fit. Regardless of stereotypes about Boomers and Gen Xers, there are plenty out there who will fit with your company’s core values.

“I have had people not choose me for jobs, projects, and speaking gigs because of my age,” Bell said of the ageism she’s experienced in the industry. “They would either tell me, or it [would] get back to me, that it was because they felt I couldn’t understand or keep up with the technology or wasn’t a fit with their all-in-their-20s team.”

Still, it’s reality that some of the aspects of your company culture may be a challenging change for older employees. This can be an opening for a dialogue, perhaps comparing the culture norms of the 1980s to today or talking about what it was like living through pre-21st century historical events, which may help younger generations understand their points of view better.

And importantly, the younger employer and teammates may have to adjust their mindset, too. A few common ageist microaggressions to look out for:

  • Assuming that, since they took a different path and came to tech later in life, that they’re incapable.
    “I have had young men say to me that since I don’t have a computer science degree or didn’t learn to code — which I did, I’m self-taught — that I can’t understand their company or project,” Bell said.
  • Treating someone from an older generation differently by being overly formal.
    “When you are in a situation like being the oldest person in a cohort, they treat you differently,” Gayle Johnson, who joined a coding bootcamp last year after decades working in data processing, told in February. “I’ve been called ‘Miss Gayle’ in the class, and I didn’t ask for that.”
  • Expressing surprise when an older generation teammate does something well, as if the expectation of their work was low.
  • Looking at Baby Boomers and Gen Xers as a ticket out of 12 weeks of parental leave. (Note that the Family and Medical Leave Act also includes caring for an ailing parent or spouse).

At the end of the day, it’s about mutual respect.

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