Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

How businesses can benefit from age diversity


Published on February 06, 2020

At age 59, Stan Kimer laced up ice skates for the first time.

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The longtime fan of figure skating had recently retired from a 31-year career at IBM. With no desire to go back to work, Kimer wanted to satisfy his thirst for learning and challenging himself. Plus, he had an extra 60 hours a week to fill.

Kimer took to the sport quickly. He entered competitions and travelled around the country to skate. But something was missing.

Kimer liked to learn everything about everything, a trait reflected in his career at IBM. In 1979, he received his MBA from the University of Chicago and accepted a job in sales support at the company’s Milwaukee office. He later moved to finance, then to marketing, brand management, technical product planning, and, finally, sales operations. Kimer received a promotion with almost every transition until he reached the executive level as Director of Global Sales Operations.

Working in departments throughout the company gave Kimer indispensable insight and connections.

“I knew what made departments tick,” Kimer says. “I could build strong alliances and work well with departments throughout the company.”

Kimer applied his mounting experience to each role. As Director of Global Sales Operations, he noticed his 3,000-person team suffered from low morale about their careers. So Kimer used his own background to develop career mapping methodology, showing employees what they could do with their experience. Morale rose.

For the first time in history, we have five generations in the workforce. And each generation tends to operate by its own set of values and skills.

Three months after retiring, Kimer surprised himself. As much as he loved his newfound passion for ice skating, it wasn’t enough. Kimer didn’t want to stop working. There was still too much to learn, and too much to share.

Building on his diverse and successful 31-year career at IBM, Kimer formed his own diversity and career-development consultancy in 2010. Now the president of Total Engagement Consulting, Kimer believes that age diversity is one of the most important diversity topics for an organization’s leadership to keep top of mind. 

Kimer’s story reflects a growing trend. For the first time in history, we have five generations in the workforce. And each generation tends to operate by its own set of values and skills. Traditionalists, born between the world wars, are characterized by their loyalty and hard work. Baby Boomers, born between World War II and 1964, are considered competitive, focused, and goal-oriented “workaholics.” Born between 1964 and 1981, the self-reliant and pragmatic Generation X helped introduce the concept of work-life balance. Millennials, born between 1982 and 1995, are often defined as uniquely ambitious yet more laid back than their elder peers. Generation Z, born after 1995, are stereotyped as entrepreneurial and tech savvy.

This diversity can pose certain challenges. Ageism in the modern workplace has become a bigger issue than ever before. Different generations struggle to fully recognize each other’s strengths. Older workers are often seen as too expensive thanks to their seniority, but less technologically inclined as their younger, cheaper counterparts. When Forbes asked employers whether older age was a competitive advantage or disadvantage in their company, more half said it was the latter. In other words, when a younger worker competes with an older worker for a job, the younger person generally wins.

This bias against older workers seems especially relevant to the tech industry, where young entrepreneurs reign. Yet demographic research shows tenured employees (over age 55) are the fastest growing segment in the workforce. This age group filled half of new jobs in 2018. Plus, unemployment rates are at 30-year lows. Drawing from this smaller talent pool disproportionately filled with older workers, companies looking to hire often do not have a choice but to bring older employees back to work.

The good news is that older workers bring with them different skill sets to the table from which younger generations can benefit and learn — and vice versa. As Kimer tells Dropbox, “leading companies are able to engage talent across all generations. They know how to get generations to work together and share their particular positive attributes and skills.”

A greying workforce

You might think the world is growing younger. You would be mistaken. In the U.S., 16% of people aged 65 and over are still employed. By 2035, that figure will be 21%. Two clear demographic trends largely shape this transformation. One, humans are simply living longer. The average lifespan goes up three months each year. In the U.S., life expectancy was 47 years at the beginning of the 20th century. Now it is 79 years, and by the end of the century it should reach 100. Second, young people are having fewer children, and fertility rates are declining throughout the industrialized world. In the U.S., the UK, Germany, Japan, and other industrialized countries, the birth rate is below replacement. 

As Stephen Hawking realized, “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it."

Financial events are also keeping older workers in the workforce longer than previous generations. Thanks to economic forces like the The Great Recession of 2008 and exploding healthcare and college tuition costs, many Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are not in a financial position to retire. It costs $1 million to retire at age 65 in the U.S. And a fifth (21%) of American adults have no savings. Another 10% have less than $5,000 in savings. Plus, many in these generations continue to support their Millennial children into their late 20s and even 30s. 

Financial stressors aside, many Traditionalists and Boomers want to keep working, despite the popular myth that turning 65 means spending the rest of their years on the golf course. 

In fact, the concept of retirees living a life of leisure is a relatively recent invention. The golden myth of retirement dates to the early 1960s when real estate developer Del Webb created Sun City, a retirement community in Arizona. Webb and his marketing team transformed retirement from “too old for work, too young to die” into a second youth. This rebanding of aging helped kickstart a dramatic shift. In 1950, half of men over 65 remained in the workforce. By 2000, that figure had fallen to 18%.

But with work helping to define many in older generations for decades, the illusion of blissful retirement on the golf course in Florida is starting to fade. People who stop working and retire often suffer from depression, heart attacks, and a general malaise of not having purpose in their lives.

We crave a raison d'etre, and work provides an obvious one. As Stephen Hawking realized, “work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” According to a recent study by the AARP, nearly 80% of Boomers are planning to continue working into their sixties and seventies — be it in their existing careers, or, like Kimer, in a different field altogether. Freedom from work is being replaced by freedom to work.

Learning from elephants

In our rapidly evolving digital landscape, what role does wisdom play? In elephant herds, the eldest leads the others to watering holes only she knows about. It is in each elephant’s best interest to follow her if they want to survive. But the value of this wisdom is situational. After all, humans now have Google Maps.

Other research shows that as people age, they grow better at thinking about social conflicts. And their ability to combine knowledge from different sources improves. Raw mental horsepower declines after age 30, but knowledge and expertise—the main predictors of job performance—keep going past age 80. 

Consider political leaders. While some revolutionary leaders have ascended in their 30s, most heads of state reach their position in office when they are well into their forties—at the earliest. But most heads of state reach their position in office when they are well into their forties—at the earliest. In the United States, twenty-two presidents celebrated birthdays in their sixties while in office while just two ended their tenure under the age of 50. 

The Amsterdam Leadership Lab, an evolutionary and organizational psychology division of the University of Amsterdam, started studying age and leadership several years ago. In one set of studies, researchers showed participants photos of older and younger looking faces, and asked them rank which ones they would prefer to be their leader for both economic stability and technological change. Participants favored the younger-looking faces as leaders for change, and the older looking faces for stability. 

“A Millennial and a Baby Boomer are likely to take different approaches to challenges and projects, and employing both makes you less likely to get stuck in one way of thinking."—Jon Hill

These results support the notion that we prefer younger leaders to guide us into the future, to stimulate innovation, and upend the status quo. But elders help prevent self destruction. In fact, even in the entrepreneurial world, older leaders are more likely to succeed. The probability of extreme start-up success increases with age, at least until the late 50s. Experience pays off. And older workers possess the wisdom, experience, specialized knowledge, and superior ability to council younger Millennial phenoms who want to “microwave” their (often raw) leadership skills. Wisdom proves useful, no matter who is in charge.

Diversity tomorrow

The benefits of age diversity extend beyond leadership. Having a range of generational perspectives throughout an organization enhances high-performing companies. The most effective way to maximize team output is to boost cognitive diversity, which is more likely to happen if you bring people of various ages and backgrounds together.

“Having a multigenerational workforce can, and should, be a distinct advantage for companies today,” Wes Gay wrote in Forbes. “The wide range of ideas and knowledge from a broad group of people can actually serve the company well, and help employees excel in their work.”

Older workers are more likely than millennials to prioritize slowing down to do their best work versus going fast to do more, a Dropbox survey shows. Meanwhile, only 29% of Millenials feel engaged at their jobs. Many factors contribute to this dissatisfaction, including lack of meaning and purpose in work, management style and company culture clashes, limited leadership opportunities, and lack of mobility. Building a team of various ages can help combat some of these issues by enriching company culture. 

“Age diversity eases transitions and improves your company’s long-term stability,” Jon Hill, chairman and CEO of oil and gas consulting firm The Energists tells Dropbox. A mix of older and younger employees allows for the natural development of mentor-mentee relationships, he adds. Companies are less likely to suffer from gaps in knowledge when older employees retire. And there is more career growth potential for younger employees, which improves retention.

“A Millennial and a Baby Boomer are likely to take different approaches to challenges and projects, and employing both makes you less likely to get stuck in one way of thinking,” Hill says. “The more diverse your workforce, the more adaptable your company.”

All together now

Although the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 prohibits discrimination against people 40 and older, tens of thousands of workers with the right qualifications say they are turned away because they are too old. The number of age-related discrimination charges filed with employers and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by workers aged 65 and over doubled from 1990 to 2017. There were 18,375 cases in 2017 alone. And these cases are vastly underreported. 

This is unfortunate, because age diversity enhances productivity and satisfaction. It boosts an organization’s creativity, problem-solving, consumer insight, and wellness. But a harmonious, age-diverse workforce does not happen by accident.

Age diversity enhances productivity and satisfaction. It boosts an organization’s creativity, problem-solving, consumer insight, and wellness. But a harmonious, age-diverse workforce does not happen by accident. Like most things in today’s landscape, a successfully diverse workforce begins with leadership. Every industry is looking for leaders and managers who can understand, communicate, motivate, train, and retain five generations simultaneously. In fact, this ability is growing into a critical skill. 

“Train managers to effectively lead cross-generational teams,” Kimer advises. “Help managers understand that treating employees equitably does not necessarily mean treating them identically. Younger employees may want a lot more hands-on management and frequent coaching to build skills, whereas mature employees may want more self-determination and less micro-management.”

Kimer adds that leaders looking to capitalize on age diversity can build a culture where everyone from every generation feels welcomed and valued in the workplace, and they can teach all employees the value that each generation provides.

“Most often older generations bring deep industry, customer and organization knowledge to the table,” Kimer says. “Younger employees offer enthusiasm and new ideas, as well as expertise in new technology. These groups working together can be a powerful combination.”

A growing trend among companies looking to take this step is “reverse mentoring,” in which younger and older employees teach each other new ideas. Having multiple generations in the workplace creates an opportunity for people to learn from each other. 

To circumvent concerns about older workers costing more, companies can bestow these employees with titles and roles that let them utilize their expertise, like supervisor and mentor roles, rather than simply push them up the pay hierarchy. Examining pay equity by job and level, not tenure, helps with this, too. Offering flexible work accommodations attracts workers with different values and needs. Companies can incorporate more light, larger fonts, and other physical characteristics that help include people of all ages. 

Barclays and Goldman Sachs both offer “returnship” programs that encourage people to reenter the workforce through paid internships designed specially for those who have been retired or out of work for two or more years. 

“In the same way that an internship offers a guided period of exploration, a ‘returnship’ provides individuals with an opportunity to sharpen their skills in a work environment that may have changed significantly since their last experience as an employee,” Goldman states on its website. “It also gives participants the ability to explore a new area of expertise and learn new skills.”

And it’s never too late to learn and grow. In fact, wisdom and experience—the hallmarks of age—make us more adaptable. The longer Kimer stayed with IBM, the more he learned about navigating change. In 1979, Kimer helped IBM install its first computers—workstations attached to a mainframe. When IBM transitioned to personal computers in the early 1980s, he once again helped with the transition. Kimer himself traded in his hand calculator for spreadsheet software.

“We need to embrace change,” Kimer would tell agitated employees. “When things change you have to rise to the challenge and figure out how to maneuver in that change.”