The gap between our workforce’s oldest and youngest employees has never been wider. With each generation elbowing the competition for a seat at the table, it’s no wonder that they don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Discussion of age discrimination often focuses on older workers, but millennials (those aged 30 and under) face an even greater challenge: while they may have the technical know-how, they also have a big image problem. A recent report from the Office for National Statistics in the U.K., which surveyed 2,200 people on age discrimination and prejudice, found that respondents had a more positive view of senior workers than they did of career-hungry 20-somethings. “Those aged over 70 are viewed by people as more friendly, more competent and as having higher moral standards than those in their 20s,” the researchers noted.
So how can millennials overcome these stereotypes? Jim Finkelstein, a management consultant and author of Fuse: Making Sense of the Cogenerational Workplace, says that the first step is understanding where the negative perceptions come from. “[Boomers] don’t understand the way the millennial work style differs from their own, so they tend to perceive them negatively,” he notes. Millennials “want the opportunity to experiment more at work, and see boomers as a barrier to that.” To convince wary boomers to trust them to take those risks, younger workers should seize every opportunity to demonstrate the skills that their generation is known for: “Flexibility, technology and the entrepreneurial spirit.”
It also helps to be empathetic to the older crowd, advises Finkelstein. “Offer to help teach what you know; don’t roll your eyes if older people don’t appreciate your skills right away.” Some companies, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Cisco, are currently exploring formal reverse-mentoring programs that allow younger employees to train their older co-workers in things like social media and technology.
Despite the overall perception that younger workers are less competent, the U.K. study also highlighted a seeming contradiction: three times as many respondents would rather work for a “suitably qualified” 30-year-old boss than a 70-year-old one. Finkelstein says this is recognition that a younger boss is often “more willing to be flexible, approach work with an entrepreneurial spirit and appreciate different value systems.” And how does a candidate prove they’re suitably qualified? On top of being a good teacher, “the best thing to do is really listen to your co-workers,” says Finkelstein. “You’ll probably find that, while communication styles can differ, everyone is looking for the same thing at the end of the day.
For these three leaders, success has meant listening to and learning from their elders
JACQUELYN CYR, 34
CEO of Espresso Agency
“My business partners now are 35 years into their careers, and I don’t have that same exposure. But competency can come from other places than age. I use case studies with clients, and carefully explain the approach to our thinking. I’ve always known that since I don’t have the experience, I need to show people I can bring value to the table—it motivates me to work harder.”
COLIN HENNIGAR, 30
Associate director, major gifts, at SickKids Foundation
“One of the great advantages of being a young leader is being able to easily build networks. Our generation, especially through Twitter and Facebook, knows how to find out a lot about a person, and we can find ways to connect with them. You might have a friend who knows someone you’d really like to talk to about your charity, for example. You don’t want to use the person, but maybe they’d be willing to help if you ask.”
JASMINE TEHARA, 33
Associate vice-president, wealth management, at TD Bank Group
“I’ve been given really great advice from sponsors and mentors at the bank who helped me when it was time to make a move or take a risk. That allowed me to build the skill sets and capabilities that matter most to the organization while getting the experience I needed to advance. The beauty of a large organization is all the people who are available to you to help you excel in a new role. It opens doors.”