Ageism in the workplace: Navigating the five-generation workforce

With people working longer than ever due to the rising retirement age, reduced incomes, and the desire to stay social and active, the modern workforce now comprises five distinct generations:  

  • Traditionalists (born 1925-1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980)
  • Millennials (born 1981-1996)  
  • Generation Z (born 1997-2012)  

Having an age-diverse workforce creates learning opportunities and brings different perspectives and wide-ranging skills, but it also raises challenges for business leaders as they try to attract, retain, motivate, and develop employees with vastly different backgrounds and experiences.  

Understanding the five generations

A multi-generational workforce often yields a range of values, communication styles, and technology fluency, making it challenging for employees to understand each other. As humans, we tend to stereotype different groups of individuals, which can result in ageism unless employers take steps to encourage greater understanding and empathy.  

The social, economic, political, and technological landscape of the US has changed dramatically and constantly over the past 60-70 years. With so much change, and so many factors at play, significant differences in workplace expectations and behaviors are to be expected; however, the patchwork of experiences can also create a stronger, more creative and productive workforce, drawing from decades of lived experience.  

Tackling ageism in the workplace  

Whether your employees and candidates are 18 or 80, giving individuals the best possible experience is paramount--but it seems this is not always the case. In Michael Page’s latest Talent Trends report, which surveyed 50,000 workers in 178 markets, a shocking 59% reported experiencing age discrimination at work.  

The report reveals that ageism affects workers across all age groups; however, those aged 50 and over are most likely to be victims, reporting a staggering 72%, followed by 47% of those in their 40s. On the other end of the spectrum, workers in their 20s and 30s also reported experiencing ageism (39%). Among the top job functions where workers experienced age discrimination were Property & Construction and Accounting & Finance.

Ageism presents itself in various ways, but some common examples of ageism include harassment, unequal pay, and forced retirement. Additionally, the differences between generations are most glaring when workers feel like they are not fully appreciated or respected by other members of the team, which can impact morale, productivity, and retention. Such prevalence of ageism in the workplace should encourage organizations to take proactive steps in promoting more inclusion and understanding across all five generations.  

Best practices for fostering inclusion

It’s important to find solutions that work for everyone. Each organization is unique and needs to find its own way of building an inclusive workplace, but here are some ideas to consider:

  • Solicit direct feedback: With such vast differences in attitudes, experiences, life-stage, values, and expectations, a “one size fits all” approach will only lead to further discrimination and dissatisfaction. Taking the time to identify and understand the varied needs of your employees through detailed employee surveys and active listening can help you tailor your approach.
  • Vary policies and management for different life stages: With five generations working together, individuals will be experiencing different stages of life. From moving into their first apartment and buying their first house to becoming parents and grandparents, catering to different paths is crucial to attracting, engaging, and retaining your workforce. Some strategies to support your age-diverse workforce include flexible work policies, varied communication efforts, and professional development opportunities. 
  • Encourage collaboration: Ensuring that your team has opportunities to get to know each other inside and outside of work—and encouraging different demographics to mix—leads to better understanding and appreciation. Creating mentoring programs where different generations can learn from each other and learn new skills can also lead to more positive and productive interactions.  

When harnessing the benefits of a multi-generational workforce effectively, organizations can bridge age gaps and become even stronger. However, this can only be achieved if leaders take steps to combat workplace ageism and build equitable and supportive environments that bring out the best of their teams. With the oldest members of Generation Alpha only two years away from entering the workforce and bringing a new range of experiences, perspectives and expectations, it’s in everyone’s best interests that companies make sure they are set up for success and inclusion.

For more workplace insights, download the Michael Page 2024 Talent Trends Global and US reports. Our team is here to support your organization on a wide range of issues, including age discrimination—request a call back and someone will be in touch.  

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