by Ruth-Anne Klassen | STC member
Building an age-inclusive working environment offers benefits for all generations.
Many of us have preconceived notions about each generation’s work ethic, knowledge, experience, and commitment to the organization. This article examines the depth of groups present in the workforce, focused on Generation Z; the issue of ageism and how to address it; and ideas for working with people of different ages.
There may be up to five generations of employees present in your workplace. As with many social constructs, these generational groups are used as a general way to describe people. However, the groups vary widely, so it is uncommon to identify fully with your assigned age group.
Let’s explore the different age groups that are present in the workforce.
- Traditionalists (born 1946 or earlier) were raised with the expectation of long-term careers with the same employer, value respect for authority, and prefer traditional methods of communication like hand-written notes.
- Baby Boomers (1945 to 1964) act as great team players, prefer leadership tactics like empowerment and collaboration, are skeptical of authority, but place a high value on their personal experience.
- Generation X (1963 to 1980) is the latchkey generation, the first generation of children of divorced parents, who are often self-reliant, efficient, and hard-working.
- Millennials (1981 to 1996) were raised in an era of repeated economic shocks, resulting in a different perspective about work/life balance. They care about growth and development, autonomy and challenge, and want supportive bosses who care about their well-being and job engagement, not just financial goals.
- The elder members of Generation Z (1997 to 2012) have entered the workforce. Their lives have been guided by technology which has given them a different perspective on diversity, individuality, and personal expression.
If we look more closely at what people are saying about Generation Z, much of it contradicts. For example, many observe that Gen Z is a digital generation, comfortable using phones for everything from schoolwork to ordering food delivery. However, numerous Gen Zs also prefer in-person work, not necessarily remote or digital positions. This includes having training, receiving feedback, and general communication in person. Many are fiscally conservative, spending carefully, choosing stable jobs, and making smart investments to attain the financial security that eluded Millennials. Others have witnessed family members endure periods of economic instability, and may embrace gig work or entrepreneurship instead of relying on a company being loyal to them. Gig work also may provide a “starter” position or experiences to further their careers.
Maximizing Cross-Generational Experience
Many employees over 40 also deal with ageism, which is discrimination of people based on chronological age. They report rejections in their job search as well as derogatory myths about them on the job. If we are to separate myth from likelihood, everyone is different and has a niche somewhere. Ageism can be subtle and socially acceptable but still a point of discomfort. It’s in your power, however, to bring up unpleasant or unjustified behaviour with a senior member of the organization, so that the workplace might be more equitable for everyone.
Mature workers are experienced in handling workplace politics, are better at communicating, and have helpful traits like caution and levelheadedness. They’ve been through it before, and there’s probably little that they haven’t experienced. Younger workers may bring new insights, but have less experience with internal politics, management changes, or other systemic upheavals.
Another approach is to recognize the similarities across generations. Young or old, everyone wants to be treated well, compensated fairly, and create a better quality of life.
In Jennifer Deal’s book, Retiring the Generation Gap, she noted that a critical factor amongst co-workers is the meaning of respect; a survey showed that different generations define respect differently. Older people were more likely to answer that respect comes with age. Younger people, however, were more inclined to answer that respect can be a mutual understanding, regardless of age or seniority, something gained by making good decisions and treating people well. To keep the peace at work, try to give people the respect that everyone wants. Younger people might show respect for older workers’ experience, while older folks can respect the talent, character, and and fresh perspectives of younger people.
Intentional bonding can be fruitful for all involved. Traditional mentoring can allow an older person to pass on their wisdom to a younger person, giving the less experienced person a leg up in their career. Reverse mentoring is when a younger person helps an older one, often in technology or other skills, they could use in their careers. Cross-generational mentoring cultivates relationships based on equal footing and mutual respect, where each individual brings something of benefit to the other.
Diverse Perspectives Bring Value
When I presented this talk in 2021, the resulting conversation focused on learning to respect different people in the workplace, based on our experiences. For all generations, it’s about the different ways we show respect for people, from honoring their preferred name, title, and name pronounciation, to avoiding subtle discrimination. We gained insight about both changing our habits and doing what is intuitive to us when working with others.
It may or may not be a good idea to treat people as we are comfortable doing. Our intuition about how we treat people might be based on treating people as we wish to be treated, or it might be based on the way that we’ve been taught to treat people. Certain people, such as those in Gen X, are conditioned to respect people of a greater age by calling them by a title, if appropriate, even when a first-name-basis may be appropriate. However, often, younger generations hesitate to use a title like Mrs., as such titles assume gender and that a surname is a married name, not a maiden name.
However, respecting names is not about guessing or assuming, as it’s a good start to listen to people when they introduce, or re-introduce, themselves. In a global business environment, you may encounter names that are unfamiliar to you. Try to pay attention and reproduce how they pronounce their name, but it’s better to ask if you forget what to call them.
Names can change throughout life. Your child, always known as Bobby, might want to be known as Robert when they reach a certain age. A transgender person may request to be called by a different name and pronoun than before. There are so many other aspects of the way we treat other people, but it seems like we can go a long way simply by calling people by their preferred name, title, and pronouns.
Respect Is a Two-Way Street
In today’s workplace, the older employees are not necessarily in leadership, and it might be a new learing experience to work for a boss younger than yourself. If associates respect their leader, regardless of age, and leaders treat their employees well, I think this helps to work in such an egalitarian workplace. We might even learn a lot from younger people, as everyone has something unique to contribute. Civility and respect for all colleagues are hallmarks of professionalism.
Finally, we might improve how we treat people by tackling our actions that come across as discriminatory to other people. If respect is something we have been focusing on for ages, many of us claim that discrimination is something that other people do, either intentionally or as a habit that is part of their character. Discrimination can stem from unconscious bias, which any of us could fall into. That’s where it helps again to listen and change the actions that we base on an unconscious bias, even the actions come from a place of goodwill. For example, there are less formal situations like an organization’s internal emails where we might not need to correct a person’s spelling. Such feedback assumes the person’s education levels and English as a first language, when there may be exceptions or learning in progress.
Overall, respecting how people identify themselves and treating everyone with courtesy can create better workplaces for different people in the workforce.
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RUTH-ANNE KLASSEN is a student in the Technical Writing Extension Certificate at Mount Royal University, along with holding a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She works as retail cashier in Calgary and writes about financial empowerment for a local organization, along with attending events with STC Instructional Design & Learning SIG and STC Canada West Coast Chapter. In her free time, she likes to go for walks, support local restaurants, and spend time with family.