Mixed age workforces – are they a good thing?

Age as part of diversity

There is a lot of discussion these days about diversity in the workforce – in gender, ethnicity, language, levels of ability. When well-managed, diversity can pay a dividend in productivity and profit. Age is an important aspect of diversity and becoming more so. Are mixed age workforces a good thing? Talking to employers and business organisations in New Zealand the vast majority answered positively, but some suggested there were disadvantages.

Advantages

A mix of experience and skill levels was favoured by my respondents. They pointed out the complementary of older and younger workers.

“Older workers have life skills, experience; younger workers have bright ideas.”

“Older workers have advantages in establishing client relationships and problem solving. Younger workers have fresh ideas and bring new technologies from university.”

“Our team provides a mix of switched-on young people up with IT etc. and experienced mature people who offer history and experience. It all works superbly for achieving outcomes.”
“Youthful energy and enthusiasm supported by cool heads who have experienced highs and lows.”

Learning from one another is therefore a strength of mixed age workforces.

“They can discuss work with other age groups and find answers.”

“(A mixed age workforce) introduces different perspectives, different approaches to problem solving. We learn from each other as each generation has different things to offer.”
Older and young workers can balance each other in the workplace in terms of risk.

“Young workers are eager for physical activity – to knock something down or build something – but are more often involved in accidents. Older workers think first, using planning and problem solving skills which comes with experience. They can help younger workers to learn.”

“Older people look at the risks. Younger people say ‘why aren’t we doing it?’ As a result, both learn – the older ones keep engaged, the young settle down from being over-enthusiastic.”

Several interviewees mentioned the steadying influence of older workers. One firm had a group of apprentices on a block course at a polytechnic in another town. Things were not going well, so they sent down an older man to stay with them in the hostel for a few days to address the problems and calm things down. Senior women can help young girls with stresses in their lives.

“Older workers make a difference by being there and just saying, ‘This is how we do things’.”

There are also advantages from the customer relations perspective.

“(A mixture of ages) allows us to match clients and their needs with people that understand them or are best suited to working with them.”
Disadvantages
Many respondents could not suggest any disadvantages in mixed age workforces. Those that did highlighted the different styles and attitudes of older and younger workers and difficulties in personal interactions.

“Some older workers do not understand younger people and vice versa. Tolerance is needed in both directions.”
“Could cause problems if a younger worker is more senior than an older worker.”
Respondents talked about younger people being more at home with new technology and the possibility that older people resent this.

“In the call centre when work is slow, the young ones surf the net and use their phones. There can be clashes with the older people about how they use their time.”

“The younger ones are more advanced technically and the older ones can be resentful that they are taking advantage of the technology.”

On their part, younger workers may see their older colleagues as a barrier to their promotion – a fear that will increase the longer that older workers stay on.

“Younger staff might feel that a heavy percentage (of staff) aged 40 plus is a roadblock in terms of their progression. I ask myself how I would have felt – 40 seemed ancient to me once.”

Learning to work with people who are not like themselves is a challenge for individuals and managers. It may be a case of breaking down stereotypes by seeing people as they are and encouraging social contact (thinking back to how to handle age discrimination). This means it is probably better not to segregate the age groups at work. A difficulty had arisen in one firm where the workforce had polarised into two age groups – those under 30 and those 45 plus. Thinking to reduce conflict, management organised work teams based on age. They found that this just reinforced differences. At tea breaks they huddled into their own groups and made derogatory remarks about the others. The gap between the age groups was widened without opportunities for interchanges, and this approach provided no solutions.

A quote in conclusion –

“A work force with a balance of youth and maturity (and diversity in other characteristics such as gender and ethnicity) is regarded as being best able to respond to the rapidly changing circumstances associated with globalisation” (from Naegele, G. and Walker, A. (2006) A guide to good practice in age management. Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions).

Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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