I was thinking about generational differences a few weeks ago when my husband and I boarded a plane for vacation. We sat ahead of three 20-somethings and were privy to their conversation for the duration of the flight. After an hour or so, my husband leaned over and asked, “Why do those young people behind us end their sentences with question marks?”
I smiled smugly and replied, “They’re using uptalk. It’s, like, a thing with millennials?”
“Now you’re doing it,” he said tiredly.
“I’m a communications expert—I know about stuff,” I replied, blowing on my fingernails and shining them on my shirt.
A few minutes later, my husband whispered, “Those young people seem to growl when they talk, too.”
“They’re using a speech pattern called vocal fry,” I said. I closed my throat and recited a few sentences in a consonant-crushing imitation of the cast members on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I declined when my husband offered me a cough drop.
OK, before you reach for your smartphone to thumb out a tweet of outrage over my misguided generalizations about millennials, you should know that the above conversation never happened. I use it to illustrate that age discrimination works both ways. Generalizing about generational differences—either up or down the decades—is bad for everyone.
The reason I’ve been thinking about generational differences is that I reached the official Social Security age of retirement a few months ago. Am I going to retire? An emphatic heck no! As I told my CEO recently, “I will work until you carry me out of here feet first, or when I’m 70, whichever comes first.” His reply was to ask why I considered 70 a magic number and then suggested I might want to stay at my job a lot longer.
My CEO’s benevolence reflects my company’s attitude toward its senior personnel—equating age with expertise, not weakness. That’s a good thing, considering I’m 16 years older than my supervisor, 18 years older than the CEO and 40 years older than the millennials in my department. I confess though: I might be a bona fide senior citizen, but in my mind, I’m still 22 and cellulite is something that happens to grapefruit, not thighs. But it’s not lost on me that I lack sensitivity about my age because my company treats its older workers like people who know a thing or two.
Workplace Age Discrimination: A Lose-Lose Business Plan
Are senior workers in other companies as lucky? Maybe not. I expect that’s because some employers believe workers of a certain age are worn out and not as quick on the draw as younger employees. Or in-depth experience isn’t worth as much as the ability to hire two or three younger workers for the salary of one senior and hoping for the best. That happened to a 60-year-old friend of mine. Her company went through an expense reconstruction, eliminating many positions. Despite excellent annual reviews, my friend was laid off. Then the company hired a guy fresh out of college to replace her, then fired him a month later because he lacked the experience to do her job. Talk about a lose-lose business plan.
Companies impede themselves operationally when they use age as a factor in hiring and retention.
Companies impede themselves operationally when they use age as a factor in hiring and retention. That’s a huge concern because people are working longer today. About 20 percent of Americans age 65 and older are still employed, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of federal Bureau of Labor statistics. More older people have jobs now since back in the early ’60s before the U.S. enacted Medicare. Many continue to work because they have no choice. Fortunately, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids discrimination against people who are 40 or older when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.
Generational Inclusion: The Age of Enlightenment
People in my company don’t worry about age discrimination. In fact, the diversity of generations is leading to innovation. We will soon launch a leadership program with the goal of training and promoting the next executives and managers from within the organization. The senior people and subject matter experts are mentors to our younger colleagues.
We have much to gain from relating to each other. My millennial co-workers are whip smart, serious about contributing and passionate about their work. They ask questions and they listen. I learn something from them every day, things like search engine optimization, which I found doesn’t mean starting a stalled car by aiming it downhill and popping the clutch.
My Gen-Xer colleagues are creative and hardwired for productivity, perhaps because they are the generation whose mothers entered the workforce in droves and being in daycare taught them independence while playing nice with others. Gen-Xers are hyper-focused and enthusiastic. It’s not unusual to hear them say, “What if we try this idea? I know the deadline is tomorrow, and it’s 5 p.m., but what if we make just one more tweak?”
My baby boomer peers came of age when social and economic equality gained prominence while the country was in the midst of political upheaval. Sound familiar? Boomers have the breadth of experience to lay the groundwork for tomorrow and the resiliency to redirect the course if need be. Perhaps my inner flower child shows when I say diversity and inclusivity aren’t just throwbacks from the ’60s. These attributes are more important than ever.
Why does any of this matter? At 75.4 million people and growing, millennials have already overtaken baby boomers as America’s largest generation. Soon they will lead our companies, political parties, the nation. It’s incumbent on the generations that precede millennials to resist focusing on what makes us different from them. Instead, let’s share what we know and let them teach us, too.
If I may respectfully borrow a word from millennials, I would describe my co-workers of all ages as ah-may-zing. I apply the same word to my working life, which will extend far into the future, maybe even beyond 70.