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Different generations have different viewpoints, different needs and different challenges and there is nowhere that that is more true than in the workplace. It is ironic then that when we talk about diversity policies, age diversity is rarely included. Remedying that would arguably help both workers and organizations, but doing so will take considerable effort.

There are now seven generations alive in Canada, with four in the workforce (all definitions of birth years come from Statistics Canada). The Greatest Generation (born before 1928) and the Interwar Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) are largely retired, while Generation Alpha (born after 2012) has yet to start work. Of those who are working, the oldest are the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1965. The oldest of these are over 75 and have mostly exited the workforce, but the youngest are not yet 60 and not necessarily in a hurry to retire. Following them are Generation X, a smaller cohort born between 1966 and 1980. Now in their mid-40s to late 50s, in many cases they are in their prime leadership years and are the ones setting policy.

The two younger generations at work are the ones that will exert increasingly more influence over the next decade. The Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996 are in their early 40s through to their late 20s, the ages when they are powering the economy in many ways by working, forming families and buying homes (and everything else). Gen Z are also rapidly becoming workers as well. Born between 1997 and 2012, they are now aged between 12 and 27 and will exponentially make their mark at work in the coming years. They are a unique group, raised with technology, schooled during the pandemic and hugely concerned about the fate of the planet. Some evidence suggests they are facing different mental health challenges than earlier groups of workers, and are facing a tough economic environment in which to buy homes and form families.

Stereotypes about all generations in the workplace abound. For years, Millennials were accused of being flighty and spoiled and not willing to adhere to traditional work policies. Now, Gen Z seems to be carving out an even more radical brand, with some going on TikTok to rant about their issues with having to work full-time. Unsurprisingly, that plays poorly with older generations who shake their heads about the work ethic of today’s young. On a more positive note, younger workers are credited with being tech savvy and quick to adapt. The reverse is true for older workers, with Gen Xers and Boomers often lamenting that they are the subject of ageism from those who assume they are a poor fit for a workplace that is rapidly changing.

As any policy maker knows, pleasing all generations is tricky. A retired boomer with a paid off house might be happy to see high interest rates because it gives them a nice, low-risk return on their savings, while a Millennial who is renegotiating their mortgage wants rates as low as possible. Government policies like low-priced daycare may garner votes from Millennial parents but be of little interest to Boomers or Zs. It is no different in the workplace, and it goes much further than a benefit package that covers kids’ orthodontic work not interesting those without children. Differently aged workers want different things and one-sized fits all policies are unlikely to please everyone.

In fact, many organizations do not seem to even buy into the idea that differently aged workers can together create something that is greater than the sum of all parts. Diversity initiatives frequently centre around sex and race, with companies proclaiming that differences in viewpoints and backgrounds are an asset. When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, however, few include age as something where there is value in diversity. Although there is scant data available for Canada, a U.S. survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP finds only 8 per cent of U.S. companies include age in their DEI statements.

There are productivity gains to be made from harnessing the positives of age diversity. A 2022 study for the American Psychological Association found that age diversity was positively associated with organizational performance, and that age-diverse workforces tended to increase human and social capital for organizations. An earlier study found that workers of any age who were part of a mixed-aged workplace group were motivated and more likely to stay with an organization. Put in more practical terms, teams made up of individuals with different knowledge bases and strengths tend to be positive all around.

One starting point to doing so is simply to use the same DEI handbook that applies to other kinds of diversity and apply it to age. Even if stereotypes are set aside, however, there is much more organizations can do to get the most out of multi-generational workforces. One starting point is simply to encourage interaction between workers of different generations and encourage formal and informal networking. Mentoring programs can be part of that, including both mentoring of younger workers by older ones as well as ‘reverse-mentoring’ where younger workers share knowledge of the areas where they are stronger.

Putting in place policies that work for all generations will also be an important part of getting the most out of a multi-generational workforce. Remote work is liked and disliked by different generations, but over all younger workers will never accept that it is imperative that all work must be done in an office environment. That means that even if some older managers secretly and not-so-secretly want to order all back to work, getting policies around that right will be crucial to retaining workers. In another vein, with an aging population, organizations might do well to consider allowing workers flexible hours or leaves for caregiving duties for family members who are in need of support. Although on the surface such policies might be most used by somewhat older workers, they will also likely tie-in to the sensibilities of younger ones.

There is a business case to be made for creating and encouraging a flexible work force. Similar to managing any kind of diversity, it might take some effort, but ultimately the organizations that do it will reap economic benefits, which will hopefully flow through the wider economy.

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