You’re Overlooking a Source of Diversity: Age
Megan Gerhardt, management professor at Miami University, studies the impact of generational conflict on organizations. She says too many leaders see generational lines as a source of division that hurts productivity. But her research shows that age is often an untapped source of diversity. When age-diverse teams are managed well, members share more knowledge, skills, and networks with each other. To foster intergenerational collaboration, she lays out a four-part framework that starts with questioning assumptions and ends with embracing mutual learning. Gerhardt is a coauthor of the HBR article “Harnessing the Power of Age Diversity.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review I’m Curt Nickisch.
Culture clashes between different generations are an age old story. And today, as technology speeds up and social media floods our lives, it can feel like those generational divides are wider than ever. But what if multiple generations is not a source of conflict, but rather a source of strength in an organization? The research of today’s guests suggests that generational differences are an overlooked store of diversity within companies because workers of different ages bring diversity of thought, perspectives and experiences.
That’s why she says it’s time to question our assumptions of age, find more constructive ways to work together across generational lines, and unleash the hidden value of the multi-generational workforce. And she’s here to share how to go about doing that. Megan Gerhardt is a management professor at Miami University and a co-author of the HBR article, “Harnessing the Power of Age Diversity.” Megan, thanks for coming on the show.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Hello. Thanks for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: Maybe we should get this out of the way, what generation you and I each are in and maybe the stereotypes that others have about our generations.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Sure. So I’m a Gen Xer, proud Gen Xer, known as the slacker generation unfortunately, it’s our stereotype. Certainly our generation has been harnessed with stereotypes about the idea that we are independent, but that our independence has led to things like wanting greater work-family balance, that we are less interested in working hard or have a weaker work ethic than our parents’ generation. So those are definitely stereotypes, but we also see some interesting trends coming from Gen X now that we are hitting middle management and upper management stages of our career. So those are some common stereotypes of Gen X. So how about you, Curt?
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, so I’m Gen X as well. And it’s funny hearing you describe some of those stereotypes. Those almost sound like complaints of any younger generation sometimes.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Yes. And I always love to think about generations as a layer of identity. And when you think about a generation and what makes it unique, every generation develops the tools they need to be successful in their own time. So what’s going on in terms of the workforce politically, economically? What do we need to be successful?
And for Gen X, it was pushing back against the baby boomer interest or passion for working 60 or 70 hours a week. The boomers popularized the term workaholic, that your identity should be so wrapped up in your job or your position or your title.
And so as Gen Xers growing up in families where perhaps both mom and dad, for the first time ever, we’re working outside the home or single parent families, we got a firsthand look, front row seat at the impact that could have on somebody’s satisfaction, their life satisfaction, their job satisfaction, their family dynamic. And that’s why as a whole, I think Gen Xers questioned whether that made sense as an approach, as every generation does for the generation before, and chose to make some different choices in terms of how we would balance work and life. And of course, whenever something shows up as different, the tendency is to question it and to maybe criticize it as being not as good as what came before it.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And speaking of differences here, Gen X is a US based and baby boomer is a very U.S.-based generation. Millennials, on the other hand, that seems to be a very global generation. We also have to be careful about talking about generations because they can really be very different depending on the country you’re in.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Absolutely. And what we’re seeing is, as the world becomes more connected, it’s more rare for a event or significant happening to just touch one culture or one country. So it used to be, if you look at the formative events that often help shape generational identity, you would look and say, “Well, really the people that were affected by that were just the people in Australia or the people in South Africa or the people in Latin America.”
But as the world has become more connected and we’re able to see and experience events together, we are seeing, as you said, younger generations, millennials, as well as Gen Z, a bit more unified in the formative experiences that they would point to in terms of things that shaped them.
We were fascinated in 2019 when “OK boomer” went viral. I got calls from all over the world because obviously with social media, that term went viral. But what a boomer was less well understood. So talked to some people in South Korea, talked to some people in Sweden trying to give some insight on the fact that yes, in the US baby boomer is the name of a generation that was marked by the population growth after World War II, but certainly in other cultures and other countries, the population went down after World War II. And so yes, we have to always be careful that we’re not being too ethnocentric and using just the US definition of generation.
CURT NICKISCH: So with that context in mind, let’s talk about some other stereotypes that are in the workplace today.
MEGAN GERHARDT: So we could start with the baby boomers. Definitely the biggest stereotype we associate is that they are not tech savvy and are resistant to change. Those are two stereotypes I hear a lot in my work, both-
CURT NICKISCH: That’s “OK boomer” in a nutshell.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Exactly. Gen Z, verdict’s still out, and that our Gen Zs are anywhere from 10 to about 25 this year. So right now we think that they are going to be a bit more risk-averse, given what they’ve grown up through, recession and pandemic. They are more savvy consumers of knowledge, growing up in the era of fake news. And we think that they are going to be more willing to blaze their own path and figure out a way that works for them, as opposed to maybe looking at their parents’ generation for guidance, which we saw with the millennials.
Of course, the most talked about generation ever, the biggest stereotype around millennials being that they’re entitled, that they are not willing to work hard, both of which we found to be large unfounded.
CURT NICKISCH: And there’s one other generation that’s in the US workplace today and that’s the silent generation. And maybe appropriately named there because it’s not one that you hear about very much. So that’s pretty striking that, in the U.S. at least, you have five generations in the workforce together at the same time.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Yes. And I think what’s remarkable is every workplace has this phenomenon, yet very few people really feel equipped to deal with it. We have not reached the point where we’re viewing age and generation interestingly as a form of diversity or potential for diversity of thought. It really is a missing link in the DE&I puzzle, as well as the cultural puzzle where we fail to understand that growing up in a different point in time can give you such interesting differences and expertise and perspective.
One statistic that we found in our research was that the last time this was looked at broadly, at least the last that we were able to see, was in 2014, and the research found that only 8% of companies included age in their DE&I strategy.
CURT NICKISCH: So what’s the problem now? Without a strategy in place, what are workforces experiencing and seeing, and what are the consequences of that?
MEGAN GERHARDT: Well, we all have these universal needs, right? We want to feel respected and connected to other people. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re from. There’s universal needs that we know exist. And the danger of not championing the value of every generation is that you’re going to have people feeling that they’re not valued and they’re not appreciated.
So where we seem to feel this tension and where it can really hurt us is when we don’t enter into understanding that our colleagues from different generations may be seeing things differently than we are. We all have this universal need for respect, but where we tend to run into difference is the norms that our generation has developed to fulfill that need.
So an example would be an older person, let’s say somebody from the baby boomer generation, if you said, “When you began your career, how did you earn respect?” They would say, “Well, we put our head down and we worked hard, and we waited for somebody to come in and tell us it was time for our promotion, it was time for our raise. And that’s how you earn respect.” That was the norm that was prevalent when they entered the workplace.
Well, fast forward to the millennial generation, the norm that they experienced growing up was if you want something, you raise your hand and you tell of people you’re ready. You go get it. This was a generation that we invested in from a very early age and had a lot of expectation for. And so by the time they hit the workplace, they were very accustomed to going after what they believed they were ready for, and that’s how you win. And when they did that, when they went in and told their boss, “I’m real ready for that promotion or I’m ready for my next assignment. I’m ready for my raise.”, that was looked at as being very entitled because that wasn’t how the baby boomer generation was raised to get respect.
And so both of those behaviors are people seeking the respect that they want and need at work, but they look very different. And because those norms look different, we have a high likelihood of miscommunication, of tension, of baby boomers feeling like that employee is entitled. And then from an even more damaging perspective, a millennial that doesn’t feel like their progress or their development is a priority for that company because those efforts are not being well received, will leave.
And millennials develop this reputation for being fickle jobs hoppers. They don’t actually leave jobs any more often than our generation, Curt, did at that age. But they’re very vocal that, “This isn’t a place where I can see myself long term because no one’s investing in my development.” And what they’re saying is, “I’m not feeling respected. I’m not feeling like I’m being valued and so I’m going to leave.” And that’s got a huge price tag to it, as we all know.
And I think right now, we’re all very much feeling the cost of losing our best talent. And the best talent exists in every generation. And if we don’t understand the intent behind someone’s behavior or we misperceive it as being entitled or resistant to change or whatever word or phrase we want to use, then we risk losing those people because they don’t feel understood, they don’t feel appreciated.
CURT NICKISCH: So how do we get to the point where we recognize the best talent in every generation?
MEGAN GERHARDT: We have to switch the culture that we have in our organizations to one that is there to champion every generation, that we have to call an end to these generational wars, these manufactured generational wars that we’ve created. And we create that tension by believing that somehow generations are in competition and that we pose a threat to each other. Because if I believe that your expertise and your experience is valued by this company, is that a threat to my expertise and my experiences being valued? And if so, then of course I’m not going to view you as a collaborator, I’m going to view you as a competitor. And so the first thing we have to do is change the culture of our organizations as leaders and say every generation has something to teach and something to learn.
CURT NICKISCH: Your article on harnessing generational differences lays out a four part framework for doing that. Can you take us through that briefly?
MEGAN GERHARDT: Absolutely. So there’s four practices that we advocate, they are pulled from best practices in diversity and inclusion, as well as cross-cultural management. And I want to preface these by saying if we think of generations as a kind of culture, when we go visit another culture, if we’re talking globally, we prepare ourselves and say, “There’s probably a high likelihood I might be misunderstood, or that I might have trouble understanding someone else. So I’m going to work a little bit harder to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m going to listen more. I’m going to ask questions. I’m going to make sure things go smoothly.” So if we can take that same mental to generational difference, the first practice is identifying assumptions. And then the second one is adjust the lens. So they work together and they work together to help us figure out what biases or what might be getting in our way.
So the story is I was doing a talk for a healthcare organization. It was an emergency departments. Had doctors, nurses across every generation in the workplace. And we had been doing some scenarios, some questions, some great discussions. And a woman stood up, she was a nursing manager, she identified herself as a baby boomer to us. And she said, “Okay, I get all this. I understand what you’re saying, but here’s my really practical challenge. I’m tired of these young people…” And Curt, anytime somebody says “these” anything, you know you’re in trouble, right? “These young people coming into the room, exam room with myself or with a doctor and pulling out their cell phones and not paying attention. And it’s rude.”
I stopped her and I said, “Okay, so the phones are out. That’s an objective behavior that we’re seeing. Why did you immediately assume they weren’t paying attention?” So I did identify assumption. The assumption is, “There’s a phone out, I’m being ignored. There’s a phone out, someone’s being rude to me.” And so I stopped that. I said, “That’s an assumption that’s being made.
So let’s walk through that. Is it possible that the phone is out, but they are paying attention? Adjust the lens says this is how you interpreted that behavior through your own generational lens.” So as a baby boomer, she didn’t always have a phone at work. Clearly she has one now, I’m sure she’s fantastic at using it. Older people are very competent and solid at using technology. That’s a stereotype that we always try to dispel. But to her, you wouldn’t take out your phone when you were having an important conversation. That didn’t make sense to her as a tool or a norm. And so her immediate conclusion was they’re being rude and they’re distracted.
And so I just asked her colleagues because there were millennial doctors and nurses, this was several years ago, so this was before there would’ve been Gen Zs in the room. But I said, “Can somebody help us think about another way to interpret that behavior? Is there something else they could have been doing on that phone that would actually be representing something productive, the shared goal you both had of what that meeting was supposed to be about?” And so many hands went up in the room. So there were people saying, “Well, I take notes on my phone. Or I would’ve been Googling the pharmacy to see what time it closed, or texting my roommate to let them know I had strep throat.” Or lots of things you can imagine.
And the reason I tell that story is because her face was exactly the evidence that I need to keep doing this work. So it occurred to her that she had been drawing this conclusion over again that was frustrating to her and aggravating and creating distance between her and younger patients. And that while certainly some people were taking out their phone and being rude and not paying attention, that there was actually another explanation that she would’ve been very happy with somebody taking notes on the conversation.
And so it was this great example of identify an assumption you’re carrying around and then pausing and adjusting your lens to say, “Well, maybe there’s a different way to think about this.” And I love to give people a very easy tool on this, which is to say, “Help me understand.” We pull from that Walt Whitman quote, “Be curious, not judgmental.” So when you’re hit by a generational behavior that your immediate reaction is, “That’s not okay with me.”, to pause and say, well, “Can you help me understand where this is coming from?” Or I sometimes will say, even in a meeting, “Can you help me understand why you have your computer out?”
CURT NICKISCH: Let’s maybe take this example to the next two practices that you talk about, which is to take advantage of differences and then embrace mutual learning.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Right. So those next two practices are really about getting us from neutral, that we’re not arguing and having conflict, but we haven’t quite recognized the benefit. And they’re helping us get to that point. So realizing that sitting next to us in our workplaces is this entirely different way of thinking and viewing things, and thinking, “How might that actually help us achieve our mission or our shared goals?” So the third practice is really about, “Let’s think about what we’re all here to do as an organization, as a team. What’s our shared mission?” And once we all get clarity on what that is and agreement that we all understand it, it’s a lot easier to then say, “Well, what are the different tools we’re all bringing to the table to help us get there?”
What’s really important, I think, is to instead of assuming that the way we’re going to do it is going to be my way or your way, this us versus them dynamic when it comes to generations is very unproductive. And so we’re not saying that us older people, I’ll put myself in that category, us older people should just move over and let the tech savvy younger people tell us how to do it.
So instead of right versus wrong or old versus new, I always say, “Let’s have a conversation about what’s going to get us closest to our shared goal.” And sometimes it might be the way we’ve always done it, the tried and true. But let’s talk about why. “Can I share with you why I love this way of doing it or why we ended up starting to do it that way?”
And provide some context. And not by lecturing. Nobody wants to be lectured at, as I always say when I’m working with older people. The way to be heard is not to lecture, but to say, “I’d love to share with you how we ended up with the strategy of no laptops during meetings. This is why I love it, or this is what I think it adds.” And then saying, “I’d love to hear why it’s so important to you to have that there, that it’s helped you learn or helping you be productive.” And then let’s have a conversation about what do we want our team norm to be. Maybe it’s that we’re fine to have technology, but when we’re doing a brainstorming session, we’re going to have no screens. Because we really think that’s important and valuable and it works for us as a team, not as older or younger people.
So I think it’s opening yourself up to the fact that we have complimentary kinds of expertise or complimentary kinds of information networks or skills can be a wonderful asset, as long as I’m not threatened by it. I can say, “Oh, that’s actually going to benefit all of us that you know how to do something I don’t know how to do.” And vice versa.
CURT NICKISCH: Well, let me have you apply this framework to a couple of common problem situations, scenarios in the workplace. First, what about this common tension point of when your manager is younger than you, say you’re 50, your manager is 35, that can sometimes make people feel awkward. How can this framework help in that situation?
MEGAN GERHARDT: So 40% of a employees are now reporting to a boss who is younger than they are. And that is definitely a reality that we see. And I think it goes back to understanding these universal needs. So if I understand that the older people on my team are probably feeling maybe overlooked, or at least wondering how much respect they’re going to get as an older person reporting to a younger leader, there’s a benefit to saying, “I’m going to partner with that person. I’ve earned this role as a leader, as a younger person and I’m confident in my ability to lead.” But instead of looking at this older person on my team as, “Oh, they’re probably going to resent me or they’re I hope that they’re going to listen to me even though I’m younger than them.” Let’s change the frame and say, “What a great opportunity we have here to partner with somebody who’s going to have a different set of skills than I do.”
And this goes back to this leadership fallacy that we should as a leader know it all, have it all figured out, not need help or engagement from other people to solve problems. And instead say, “I’m so excited to have you on our team, looking forward to learning from you because I know you have a lot of experience in this area. I’m going to bring X, Y, and Z to the table. That’s what I’m known for. That’s what I love to do. But I also value that you bring these other things.” And that’s a leader role modeling that someone else’s experience and their value isn’t a threat, that it’s an asset.
And I think that’s what we have to start moving towards. We have to say, “We’re not in a competition, that I am thrilled I have someone with 20 years more experience than me who can give us context, who can help me understand how to get traction for my new ideas. And that can be…” We talk a lot about allies and partners and things like that. “… That can be my ally.” And I think anyone who’s treated that way in the workplace by their leader, I don’t care what age they are, will think, “I’m needed. I’m valued. I’m respected for what I bring to the table.” And then what happens, Curt, is that mutual respect is much more likely to occur. So if I say to someone older than me on my team, “I’m really interested in how you would approach this problem.” And I listen to them.
CURT NICKISCH: Got it. What about a case where you’re younger and you come to a more hierarchical old school, pay your dues, seniority comes time… How would you try to approach that if you’re a younger person coming into that workplace with lots of ideas about how to do things and maybe do differently?
MEGAN GERHARDT: I would give the same advice. I would say you want to respect that the norms you have about the way things are done are probably not shared necessarily with your boss or your colleagues that are older than you. And just an asterisk on this one, because I think that’s one of the thing for younger people that takes a while to understand. So when you look at intercultural awareness and cultural intelligence, the very first stage is denial. We don’t know what we don’t know. That saying is the fish doesn’t know it’s wet. And so when you grow up with people the same age as you, when you do as you’re young, through school, you just assume everybody has always done it the way you do it. It doesn’t occur to you that your way of going through the world might be different because of your generation. And so our first couple years in the workplace is often a rude awakening that that’s not case.
And so I think, first of all, acknowledging that you may very well be working for people that would never have gone to their boss to ask for a promotion, a raise, a more challenging assignment, coaching. And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but being aware that it might be unexpected behavior or behavior that doesn’t fit a norm that they’re used to helps you decide how you’re going to frame that. And then I think going in once again with the idea that, “I’m here because I have something to learn and I have something to teach.” But let’s start with the learning. So that’s the fourth practice you mentioned, embracing mutual learning. So as a younger person, if I go in and I say to my director, my manager, and I say, “I’m really interested in having this particular position in my career within the first three years. Or if I want to advance in this company or I want to be successful, what advice would you have for me?”
You’re not saying, “I don’t have my own ideas, or I don’t know what I’m doing.” You’re saying, “I’m someone who’s interested in learning from other people, including people who are not limited to but including people older than me. And I’m going to show that by asking, if I want to be successful, that’s my intent, what would your advice be for me?”
CURT NICKISCH: What’s your hope? How much better do you think organizations can be if they really embrace a strategy that makes the multi-generational workplace really sing?
MEGAN GERHARDT: I think the potential to unlock generational collaboration is significant. I think it’s one of our most wasted human resources. And I think organizations that are interested in investing in this as a valuable form of diversity are going to quickly reap the benefits. We’re all sitting on that wonderful phrase, future of work. And we’re in the midst of the biggest management and leadership shift we’ve seen in our lifetime with remote work and the question about return to the office and what’s ahead in terms of all of those things in organizations. And they’re not problems that are going to be solved by one generation alone. They’re going to be solved by organizations that can get all hands on deck and seek out input from everyone as to how to solve them.
And my hope moving forward with this work is that having a workplace that has four generations, five generations, again, something that will keep happening, this isn’t a problem that’s going away, is going to be seen as a thriving workplace that values the different perspectives that come with generational identity. And that that’s seen as being something that we’re excited to tap into, that we’re harnessing this mutual learning and the things that are sitting right in front of us in terms of human potential.
CURT NICKISCH: Megan, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your research and the value that’s out there for all of us.
MEGAN GERHARDT: Thank you, Curt. I appreciate you having me.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Megan Gerhardt. She’s a management professor at Miami University, and with Josephine Nachemson-Ekwal and Brandon Fogel, she wrote the HBR article, “Harnessing the Power of Age Diversity.”
And for more in getting the best out of the five generation force, check out hbr.org/generations. That’s where you can read about managing generational conflict and how to survive a toxic ageist workplace. Again, that’s at hbr.org/generations.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.