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5 Ways to Bridge Your Employee Age Gap & Motivate Different Generations

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The age gap in the U.S. workforce is the largest it’s been in half a century. Whether it’s longer life expectancies, rising health care costs, lingering financial concerns, or simply a desire to keep working, Americans now stay in the workforce longer than ever. But that creates a problem.

This trend has contributed to cultural and technological divides between younger and older workers that can quickly turn into unfair stereotyping and resentment. But what if I told you both groups, and your company, can learn to benefit from their differing skill sets?

Let’s look at the current makeup of our workforce, what motivates younger and older workers, what they can learn from each other, and how your company can use that to your advantage.

What are the numbers behind your workforce’s generation gap?

There were only three unique generations in the American workplace during the 1990s. But now our workforce is comprised of four:

  • Silents (mid-60s and up)
  • Baby Boomers (mid-40s to mid-60s)
  • Generation X-ers (mid-30s to mid-40s)
  • Millennials (the youngest workers in their 20s)

Roughly 40% of workers under age 50 are unhappy with this, because they believe the pool of older workers keeps them from getting the jobs or promotions they want—and 14% of workers age 60 and above agree with their younger colleagues.

But are older workers really crowding out younger ones?

No.

If anything, studies have found that the employment of older workers actually benefits younger ones with higher wages and employment rates.

For your company to maximize the productivity of both your older and younger employees you need to focus on these positives, understand the motivations of each group, and emphasize what they can learn from each other.

And those motivations might surprise you.

PC: SHRM

How can you use generational motivations in your workplace?

Younger employees generally want to make money to cover their living expenses and their active lifestyles. They also crave opportunities to grow their skills and advance their careers—whether at your company or elsewhere.

Older workers, on the other hand, are more likely to earn money to ease into retirement. They’re also more likely to be invested in your company’s customers and goals and value the consistency and security that comes with staying put in one job.

But that’s pretty much where the differences end, and the list of their common motivations is much longer.

Both older and younger employees want:

  • Good relationships with their bosses
  • Respect from their colleagues
  • Autonomy while on the job
  • Opportunities to work from home
  • Solid business results
  • Recognition for a job well done
  • A healthy work-life balance

Not only are younger and older employees’ motivations more alike than different, the fact that they are in different stages of life actually makes each group less competitive with each other and more open to mentoring.

This lack of competition can produce mixed-age teams that are happier, more productive, and more willing to help and learn from each other than single-generation teams.

And there’s a lot that older and younger employees can learn from each other.

6 Things Younger Workers Can Learn from Older Workers

1. Take setbacks in stride.

Older workers can provide valuable insights about the struggles building and maintaining a career can create.

Their personal anecdotes to younger employees can include how to manage role and salary changes, new employees, balancing family with work, and powering through economic recessions.

2. Prioritize and develop soft skills.

An increasing number of younger employees have grown up typing into their phones, instead of talking on them.

Older workers can teach their younger colleagues about the importance of soft skills, like teamwork, common courtesy, conflict resolution, and good, old-fashioned interpersonal communication.

Technical skills are easy to hire or train, but 40% of millennials are missing these soft skills most older older generations have.

3. Appreciate patience and loyalty.

While younger employees might think the grass could be greener at a new job, older workers can show them that loyalty to an employer can sometimes bring its own rewards, like:

  • Increased salaries
  • Higher bonuses
  • More control over roles
  • Paid personal development

Changing jobs too often can also be seen as a negative thing to some employers, so there needs to be a balance between staying and going.

PC: Good Call

4. Provide insight for future turmoils.

The older employees are, the more likely they have regrets about their career choices.

Some might regret not working harder, not taking more initiative, or not speaking up about problems at work. While others might regret not seeking more career guidance, staying too long at a job they didn’t like, or holding on to anger about being passed over for a promotion or fired.

Older employees can share valuable perspectives about the regrets they have about their career choices, and teach younger employees how to avoid similar mistakes.

5. Navigate politics and drama.

Employees in older age brackets also have more experience dealing with the cliques, rumors, arguments, backbiting, unmerited favoritism, and other forms of office politics that can naturally occur in the workplace.

While younger employees might choose to flee in the face of such adversity, older ones can provide advice about how to properly and productively navigate it.

6. Use conflict to grow.

Conflict happens in every workplace. Older employees have more experience and wisdom in using conflict to solve problems, forge stronger relationships, and build a stronger company.

They can teach younger employees to see conflict as opportunities for:

  • Challenging existing structures
  • Finding new opinions
  • Uncovering truths
  • Learning more about their team

PC: Deloitte

6 Things Older Workers Can Learn from Younger Workers

1. Use the best technology.

Older employees grew up with fewer technologies than their younger colleagues, and are more likely to be skeptical of each “next big thing” after seeing so many new pieces of technology come and go over the years.

Younger employees grew up with a constant flow of technology, and can better determine which devices will (or won’t) benefit their older colleagues and company as a whole. They know that if you can think of it, there's probably a tool for it.

2. Try different things and learn new skills.

Younger employees value learning new skills that can advance their careers. They can help older workers understand why change is inevitable and why the skills of today might not be as valuable in the future.

3. Appreciate diversity and change.

Millennials and Generation X-ers comprise the most diverse workforce in history. Their wide-ranging backgrounds and perspectives can help influence older workers to become more open to things like:

  • Different communication styles
  • Increased focus on diversity and inclusion
  • Valuing performance and talent vs. time put in

4. Be open to creativity and collaboration.

While some younger employees fear older employees don’t appreciate them, 70% of the overall workforce actually likes working with them.

Older workers love their younger coworkers’ tech skills, creativity, and collaborative mindset, and welcome opportunities to work with them to solve problems and brainstorm new ideas.

5. Push for growth and new opportunities.

Older people are often right about the benefits of sticking with the same company for years (or decades), but sometimes better opportunities do lay elsewhere.

Older employees may not be willing to hop from one job to another like their younger colleagues, but if their younger coworkers’ willingness to do so persuades them to make a positive jump or two, that’s a good thing.

6. Pursue dreams outside of work.

The older employees get, the more likely they are to have fewer responsibilities (like kids or mortgages) at home. As a result, they are more free to dream.

Younger workers tend to be more optimistic and can encourage their older colleagues to pursue the things they’ve always wanted to do, but might have given up on long ago.

5 Ways to Bridge Your Employee Age Gap

Now that we’ve established that older and younger employees are willing to work  and learn together, here are a few quick tips that will help you leverage their interaction to benefit your team as a whole.

PC: Strategic One

1. Encourage cross-generation communication.

This could be through:

  • Open-door policies
  • Company mentorship programs
  • Check-ins
  • One-on-ones
  • Small groups

Encourage all team members to listen as much as they share.

2. Foster an atmosphere of respect.

Older employees may feel disrespected if young employees don’t follow their directions, while younger employees might feel disrespected if older employees disregard their opinions.

To encourage respect across all generations of your workforce you can:

  • Develop and implement clear rules for conduct
  • Lead by example, not force
  • Encourage employees to listen and help each other
  • Engage employees on their own terms, encouraging them to be themselves
  • Show employees that you care by taking their feedback seriously, investigating their complaints, and promptly informing them of your findings
  • Provide opportunities for workers to excel, and show appreciation when they do well

3. Emphasize multigenerational learning opportunities.

Head off conflict before it arises, and encourage your team to embrace generational differences as learning opportunities and idea generators.

Whole Foods, for example, encourages employees across all generations to work together. This helps them learn from each, come up with better ideas for the company, and decreased turnover rate.

Various health systems and medical centers have also made intergenerational learning a significant part of their missions through leadership retreats, conferences, educational programs, and structured interaction during staff meetings.

4. Embrace different work styles.

Results are more important than rules. Allow room for individuality and embrace different work styles that help team members from all generations be the most comfortable and produce their best work.

Keep in mind that older employees are typically willing to use technology for productivity purposes, but they prefer to communicate in person, over the phone, or in writing. Younger employees, on the other hand, prefer to communicate via email, text, and chat.

Older employees are also more comfortable working longer hours, as well as working on-site. But younger employees tend to prefer more flexible work schedules and settings.

Creating systems that get the most out of both work styles will help you maximize your company’s productivity as a whole.

5. Place employees in roles or settings where they will succeed.

Younger employees should be placed in positions where advancement is possible, while older workers tend to perform better with older supervisors.

Considering rotating people from one team to another in order to find the best combinations.

Make your multi-generational team stronger through communication.

While there are some differences between older and younger workers, there are more similarities—like their willingness to rise above differences through communication and collaboration to produce great work.

Cultivating a culture with open communication can set your multi-generational company apart from your competition.

Related: 9 Ways to Improve Communication Across Your Organization