Pondering diversity: is age anything more than a number?

The growing commentary around the issue of age at work has got the team at ENGAGE talking. It’s a topic that we address within our client work around engagement, but it also resonates much closer to home. A number of our team are ‘in the region of’ 50 years old, while others fit firmly into the millennial bracket. What’s more, we share office space with numerous start-ups and hi-tech companies, many of whom have a growing number of ‘generation Z’ employees.


The diversity we see on a day-to-day basis creates a vibrant working atmosphere – but can make those of us in the upper age bracket feel old and, dare I say, out of touch. Is this the right way to think about age today?


Those of us who don’t sport luxuriantly oiled and coiffed beards, who wear socks rather than displaying a neat section of ankle, and who cross the road paying attention to the traffic rather than wearing noise-cancelling headphones, have as much to contribute to a diverse workplace as younger generations.


There are of course some downsides to ‘getting old’. We can be fairly stuck in our ways, somewhat inflexible, and occasionally unwilling to listen to or respond to criticism. Our years of experience can make perspectives imbalanced towards what has been rather than what could be.


But these same years of experience can deliver a wealth of knowledge, ideas and ‘tried and tested’ wisdom that can boost team and business performance. Witnessing the changing trends, over months, years and even decades, regardless of the industry we work in, can set us in good stead for further change and evolution. It can even allow us to predict and avert potential issues before they become an unmanageable problem.


The experience factor – or rather, lack of it – is also a key benefit of employing younger generations. Without past knowledge, the younger members of a team can bring a fresh, unbiased approach to problem-solving and business development. Their innate ability to grasp new technology means they’re not afraid to try new things, and their broader acceptance of risk makes them more likely to test out new practices with less fear of failure.


For our team at ENGAGE, the marriage of experience and knowledge with enthusiasm and capability is one made in heaven. We are unified by an openness to learn from each other. We all feel we have plenty to offer, but are willing to listen to alternative views from our inter-generational colleagues. And we deliver just the right balance of cautiousness and optimism to take risks and drive our company forward.


And for businesses more broadly, a diverse and blended approach to age can only be a good thing. The reality is that many of us considered to be ‘generation X’ will be staying at work for some considerable time. Rising retirement ages and reduced pensions mean we may well be looking at 15-20 years more in the workforce. But we also understand the generations that follow us – after all, they are our children and increasingly our colleagues and peers.


What does this mean then for businesses employing older people? Age-related issues are surely set to multiply, so how do we best manage them? With the share of voice focusing on engaging generation Z, how do we work to equally engage generation X? And how do we help balance their perspectives with those of newer generations?


There are many discussions to be had about helping younger employees manage and lead people who may be significantly older than them. And there are many more that need to focus on the sensitive areas of age discrimination, health and performance. But it’s critical to note that employee engagement surveys have consistently demonstrated that the older groups in nearly all organisations are more highly engaged than nearly all groups except the very new starters.


So, as our 55, 60 and 65+ populations increase, perhaps we need to take a different approach to age. It is, after all, just a number. We’d do much better to use engagement as a benchmark of success – however old or young we may be.


By Nick Thompson
Practice Head: ENGAGE