Ageism at work: the workplace shouldn’t be young vs old. Intergenerational teams are the future

Intergenerational teams in workplaces, combining the skills and experience of younger and older workers, are better for business and better for people, says Georgina Lee

Above: Martin Swain, Employee Relations, GSK, talks at 2014’s Age of No Retirement? conference

There’s a saying that “experience begins at 30”, yet its perceived value deteriorates so rapidly after 50. In youth-obsessed industries, younger managers oversee younger teams that run younger companies, and older workers are too often seen as desk-blockers.

Various strategies are deployed by HR departments to root them out. Early retirement, voluntary redundancy, surplus to requirements: these are some of the clichés and stereotypes that are, at least in part, based in fact.

Those over-50s who try to re-enter the workplace are criticised for stealing jobs from graduates, despite assurances from economists that the economy is not a zero-sum game and economic prosperity depends on a growing diverse and flexible skills pool.

Regardless, the anticipated shortages in skilled labour will inevitably cause companies to increasingly retain and hire older workers.

There are an increasing number of employers that are either preferentially selecting older workers for their valuable experience or who are committed to matching the skills to the role, regardless of age.

These employers are equipping their managers with the skills to manage diverse teams and extract the best performance from the blend of older experience and youthful innovation. There is growing evidence to show that the performance of ‘intergenerational’ teams is superior to that of exclusively youthful teams.

Research has also debunked the myth that 60-year-olds are less productive than 30-year-olds in the workplace. Trends in flexible and remote working, along with advances in information technology, further enable the effective management of diverse and distributed teams.

At The Age of No Retirement?, an organisation i co-founded, our belief is loud and clear: diverse, blended, intergenerational teams need to become the norm, not the exception.

Teams need to be just that, built in accordance with skills and capabilities, not hampered by stereotypes and misperceptions, driving companies and industries forward and serving a wider, diverse society.

There is a long way to go to get there, but there are many examples of good practice and a few willing champions to help lead the way. We need are illustrative stories, captivating storytellers and channels to amplify their message.

We have some ideas on where and how to begin.

Building mixed-age teams 

Wisdom and experience married to the innovation and dynamism of youth make for powerful team performance. But there are few examples of anyone doing this. So much potential is not being realised.

We can change this by showing the benefits of intergenerational working; by building and sharing the business case.

The Age of No Retirement? is looking for four big UK brand partners to work with us to create the positive case studies which will lead the way in proving not just the financial, but also the social, benefits as a result of different ages working together.

It is clear that the lack of contact across ages is fragmenting society. It is not us versus them. The young need to embrace people who are older and vice versa.

But to stop this disconnect we have to find ways of getting beyond the fear, the red tape, police checks and health and safety to reclaim the community spirit of previous generations. We need ideas and actions. We know good practice is out there, often on a small scale, e.g. schoolchildren teaching tech skills; older career and exam mentors. Let’s share the good stories of communities where the age barriers are broken down.

  1. Disrupt the youth
  2. Let’s disrupt youth-obsessed industries. There is so much prejudice and bias out there that is perpetuated by repetitive stereotypical messaging by certain industries. We need to identify, expose and change the organisations, businesses and brands which are youth-obsessed and disregard or misrepresent the 35 per cent of the UK population which is over 50.
  3. Let’s encourage organisations and brands to trial age-neutral initiates, measure impact and effectiveness, and share through storytelling.

The media is ageist and has to change. It is one of the biggest perpetrators of the divide between generations. We need to see more images of different age groups together.

Let’s shame the media away from sensationalism and patronising clichés and towards positive storytelling and role modelling. It’s time for change.