By Cari Dominguez, Chair, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
When most organizational leaders think of diversity initiatives, they tend to think of racial, gender, and cultural diversity. Another aspect of workplace diversity that almost every organization has, but remains largely overlooked by most organizations today, is generational diversity. If your organization is like most others, you probably haven't given much thought to the generational dynamics in your workforce. A recent report from The Conference Board found, for example, that 66 percent of organizations surveyed did not even have an age profile of their workforce. They also found that 81 percent of those organizations did not include cross-generational issues in their diversity training. If generational diversity is not on your radar screen, you may want to put it there. Let me tell you why.
Four different generations participate in the American labor force today – the Silent Generation (roughly ages 59 and older), the Baby Boomers (ages 41 to 58), Generation X (ages 24 to 40), and Generation Y (age 23 and younger). Each of these generations has lived through a common set of social and historic events that have helped shape their unique attitudes, ambitions, and world views. Not surprisingly, research shows that each generation approaches work and career in different ways. That is not to say that the members of any given generation think or behave exactly alike. Rather, because of their shared experiences, employees of similar ages often will bring common approaches, ideas, and values to the workplace.
In today's highly-competitive, global economy, an organization in tune with its age-diverse workforce will enjoy a real competitive edge. Generational blending can enhance creativity and productivity, as age-diverse work teams are able to approach problems and challenges from a variety of vantage points and draw from a greater breadth of experience. A recent survey by the American Management Association found, for example, that diversity in senior management teams – including generational diversity – consistently correlates to superior corporate performance. Organizations would be wise to draw on the diverse perspectives, skills and strengths of all generations and use these to their advantage in the marketplace.
Understanding generational differences also can help an organization recruit, develop, and retain top talent of all ages. Savvy organizations appreciate, for example, that a different approach may be required to motivate a team-oriented Baby Boomer versus her independent-minded Gen-X colleague. Yet, in other respects, the needs of those same two generations can sometimes converge; as Gen-Xers begin to raise new families and Baby Boomers assume greater elder care responsibilities, for example, both generations have begun to place a premium on flexible work arrangements. Organizations that understand what makes each employee tick will have a leg-up in the war for talent. Viewing the situation through a "generational lens" can sometimes be a good starting point for assessing an employee's needs.
Understanding the generations in a particular workforce can help make an organization stronger. Conversely, failing to appreciate the dynamics of an age-diverse workforce can seriously hurt any organization. The same generational differences in values, perspectives, and approach that can enhance organizational performance and productivity, when properly managed, can also create division among employees when ignored. Age-based stereotypes and prejudices are often fueled by generational differences. Competition for jobs, flatter organizational hierarchies, and the gradual transition from seniority to performance-based pay and promotional systems all set the stage for heightened generational tension as each generation jockeys for the best employment opportunities.
Intergenerational conflict can have a disastrous impact on the morale and productivity of any workforce. It can also lead to EEO complaints and lawsuits. In recent years, age discrimination has become the fastest growing category of charges that EEOC receives – up 41 percent since 1999. Although workers under the age of 40 are not protected by the federal age anti-discrimination law, younger workers also can be the targets of age-based stereotyping, particularly as they move into positions of greater responsibility. Organizations that fail to address the needs of younger workers risk higher turnover and lower productivity.
If you're thinking you can just ride out this storm, think again. Research indicates that America's workforce will continue to be age-diverse for many years to come as America's Baby Boom generation redefines attitudes and expectations toward work and retirement. Research shows that 80 percent of Baby Boomers plan to work at least part-time during their retirement years. Increased life expectancies, ever-rising health care costs and 401(k) plans shrunk by a declining stock market could keep many Boomers in the workplace for a long time.
As Baby Boomers do begin to retire, though, many organizations will face yet another and related crisis – a shortage of skilled workers. Generations X and Y combined are simply not large enough to replace the number of older workers that will leave the workforce. Organizations will need to explore strategies – as many already are – to keep older workers in the workforce longer, including the use of part-time arrangements, flexible work schedules, and gradual retirement alternatives. Likewise, many organizations will need to focus on succession planning to ensure the smooth transition of younger workers to positions of greater responsibility and authority.
Inevitably, all organizations will be forced to grapple with generational diversity issues whether they want to or not. Organizations that do so sooner rather than later will be better positioned to minimize legal costs and costs associated with decreased morale and productivity. If you aren't sure where to start, don't worry. You don't need to go it alone. There are a number of books on the market now on the subject of generational diversity in the workplace, and many diversity consultants and trainers have begun to add age to their diversity training repertoire. Additionally, the EEOC offers outreach, technical assistance and training on the subject of age discrimination and issues relating to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. For more information, see our website at www.eeoc.gov.
Cari Dominguez is chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Equal Pay Act; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination affecting individuals with disabilities in the federal government; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. To contact the EEOC, or to get further information about the Commission and the FTC Initiative, please visit the EEOC's website: www.eeoc.gov.
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