How to foster an age-friendly company culture
“Can you put together a PowerPoint for our next team meeting, about last month’s sales figures?”
The employee suddenly looks anxious. “Is it really necessary, shouldn’t we just do a verbal presentation? Lots of people will prefer it.”
Your staff member, in their early 60s, has never prepared a PowerPoint before. And they have no idea where to start. When their younger manager realises what is really going on, they scoff inwardly at the older employee’s lack of technical skills. They assign the PowerPoint presentation to someone else – “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it” – and mentally dismiss the older employee as a “has-been”. They don’t understand, or don’t care, that this is actually one of the most accomplished members of the team.
As the workforce ages, variations of this scene threaten to become increasingly common. So how do you ensure that your older employees are given the support they need to thrive in the modern workplace – and that their potential to contribute is valued and recognised, as well? The key is to create an environment in which diversity is genuinely respected.
What benefits should you provide? What kinds of working hours are appropriate? What pace of work? What technological skills should be expected? Balancing everyone’s needs can be challenging. There are also opportunities to consider. You need to find ways to help everyone work together in a productive way – and gain the full benefit of a multi-generational workforce. For example, how can you help your older workers transmit the knowledge and experience they have gained over decades to their younger colleagues, and in turn encourage younger colleagues to share their own unique knowledge with older generations?
You also need to create policies which prevent discrimination against your older employees and create an environment in which different generations can work productively together. But policies, on paper, will make no difference. Not unless your team members have genuinely bought in to your vision of a company where people of different skills, abilities and experience work together, supporting each other and drawing on each other’s strengths.
That scenario I laid out earlier, of a company in which a younger manager dismisses an older employee because they don’t know their way around PowerPoint? That could easily happen in a company which is officially committed to age diversity. But it wouldn’t happen in a company in which that was genuinely the prevailing culture. Making that happen is a big task. But it is possible.
Over the past few decades, most companies have made enormous strides instilling a culture of gender and cultural diversity in their workplaces. I’m not saying that all the work is done, far from it. But most companies have made a conscious effort to create workplaces in which women and minorities are celebrated and treated equally, and diversity is recognised as a net asset to the business. The result is a big cultural shift. Age diversity is rarely championed in the same way, but it could be. Here's how:
- Start by rolling age into the initiatives you run in any case around diversity
- Help your employees understand that there are enormous benefits to working in a multi-generational environment, just as working in a multi-cultural environment helps everyone
- Everyone has knowledge to share, with older generations retaining – for example – a lot of institutional and operational knowledge which would otherwise be lost
- Create cross-generational mentoring programmes to share that knowledge
- Intolerance of ageism should be a given, just as intolerance of sexism and discrimination against minorities is now a norm
- Help the generations working together see that they’re dependent on each other’s success
- Encourage them to work together in age-diverse projects, so they can develop trust and work together for a common goal. Team-based incentive and reward systems work particularly well
- Acknowledge inter-generational tension when it happens, and deal with it. Do not allow conflict to bubble under the surface and fester, because it will affect your work environment.
If it seems likely that you will experience an increase in older workers and a decline in younger workers, develop good policy sooner rather than later.
Of course, none of this happens on its own. The top layers of management must be absolutely committed to respecting age diversity and reaping its benefits. This means proactively thinking about how you need to structure and change your business, to bring it about.
So, when an older employee confesses they have never used PowerPoint, the reaction is never eye-rolling and exasperation, but an offer of help. Your younger employee knows that the older staff member has helped them navigate other issues in the past, because the information flows in both directions and they are happy to reciprocate.
That is a workplace where staff believe that age diversity has intrinsic value.
Steve Butler, pictured below, is the author of new book The Midlife Review: A Guide to Work, Wealth and Wellbeing, published by ReThink Press