Managing Generational Differences in the Workplace

Senior female professional working with younger colleagues

Conversations about workplace diversity often focus on characteristics such as race and gender. However, the presence of generational differences in the workplace creates a distinct set of challenges and opportunities.

Millennials and Generation Z now comprise a dominant share of the labor force. At the same time, the number of workers 65 and older is increasing. As a result of these overlapping trends, some organizations now have as much as a 50-year age difference — or more — between their oldest and youngest employees. 

Growing up in a different era often yields a diverging set of life experiences. Employees from different generations may hold conflicting values and expectations of what a typical day at work should look like. Technology presents another source of contention. While the youngest employees have never known a world without the Internet, older workers may never have used a computer until later in life.

Managers need to be mindful of the trends influencing today’s multigenerational workforce. Employment policies and training should be designed to avoid age discrimination claims. Companies must also invest in creating an environment in which all generations can successfully work together. 

Generational Diversity Trends & Challenges

Generational diversity has increased over the past several decades, and this is expected to continue in the years ahead. Currently, the U.S. population primarily consists of the following generations, along with their approximate birth years: 

  • Silent Generation (1928-1945)
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • Generation X (1965-1980)
  • Millennials (1981-1996)
  • Generation Z (1997-2012)

While Millennials (approximately ages 25 to 40) are the largest generation in the workforce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that people 65 to 74 and even 75 and older will be among the fastest-growing segments in the 2020s. Persons 20 to 65 had the highest rates of labor participation in 2019, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Ages 65 to 74 had a 26.8% labor participation rate, while for those 75 and older, the rate was 7.2%. 

Several factors are leading more employees to work longer than their parents and grandparents did. Advances in medicine mean people are simply living longer and remaining healthy enough to continue working. Changes to Social Security require people to work longer to reach full retirement age. Finally, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 led many people to take withdrawals from their retirement accounts to make ends meet. Many of these individuals have put off retirement in order to replenish those funds. 

Generational differences in the workplace can be a source of conflict. Here are a few of the sticking points that managers may find themselves grappling with: 

  • Preferred communication methods sometimes differ, with younger workers gravitating toward text messaging and older individuals preferring direct phone calls. 
  • Older employees may question younger workers’ interest in more frequent feedback. One potential advantage of this is that problems may be identified and corrected more quickly.
  • Younger generations value work-life balance, while older individuals may be more comfortable with stricter boundaries between their personal and professional lives.
  • Those with decades of experience may be used to traditional top-down organizational structures. Younger generations may be accustomed to more egalitarian interactions between managers and employees.

Although generational diversity may become a point of contention, they can also lead to fruitful conversations that improve the workplace for everyone. Employers must also be careful to comply with laws prohibiting age discrimination. 

Avoiding Age Discrimination Claims

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects applicants and employees age 40 and older. Employers may not discriminate against older persons in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, terms and conditions, or privileges of employment. In addition, 49 states have their own age discrimination laws, some of which prohibit discrimination against both younger and older workers.

Even with these protections in place, the EEOC reported in 2018 that about six out of ten older workers had experienced some form of age discrimination. In addition, older persons often have a harder time finding new employment after a layoff. 

Age discrimination often stems from negative stereotypes about the effect of age on a person’s ability to perform job-related tasks. One is that cognitive ability declines with age. Although brain processing speed does decrease over time, the aging brain draws upon many strengths to compensate. These include problem solving, judgment and dealing with complexity. Traits like innovativeness and creativity also persist across a person’s life span. A second negative stereotype relates to physical ability. In reality, the impact of age on physical ability varies widely from person to person, and is affected by many factors like lifestyle, fitness and genetics. 

Common age discrimination complaints include unlawful discharge, harassment and discriminatory terms and conditions of employment. Employers must review hiring procedures and employee handbooks to avoid practices which could constitute age discrimination. Examples might include the following:

  • Job postings that express a preference for “digital natives”
  • Asking for a job applicant’s date of birth or graduation year
  • Digital hiring algorithms that disproportionately eliminate older candidates
  • Telling a candidate that they are “overqualified”
  • Asking a candidate why they are seeking a particular job “at this age” or “at this stage in your life” 
  • Establishing mandatory retirement ages
  • Reducing job benefits based on age, which is prohibited under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 except in limited circumstances (OWBPA) 


Leading a Multigenerational Workplace

Including age in diversity and inclusion efforts can help employers avoid discrimination charges while encouraging collaboration across generational lines.

A healthy workplace culture is one where individual talents are recognized and where discriminatory assumptions and remarks are prohibited. Employers must explicitly ban unlawful age discrimination or harassment across the employee lifecycle, from recruitment and hiring to long-term retention. 

Employers should remember that multigenerational teams offer many strengths that can bolster productivity and competitiveness. Train managers and employees to value the unique assets of each generation. Experienced employees often appreciate the opportunity to share their knowledge with younger colleagues. Likewise, individuals who are adept at using advanced technologies can mentor those who are learning to use such tools for the first time. 

When conflicts arise, acknowledge them and encourage greater understanding of the generational differences that exist. Encourage flexibility, such as a willingness to vary communication tools when interacting with different colleagues. 

Finally, managers must practice self-awareness when interacting with employees. Avoid letting age-related biases influence decisions. For example, include all employees when announcing training sessions or professional development opportunities, instead of assuming that older employees would not be interested. 

At McMahon Berger, our attorneys work with employers to build positive employee relations and avoid age discrimination charges. If you are looking for ways to successfully manage a multigenerational workforce and stay in compliance with applicable laws, contact us for an appointment.