When it comes to diversity & inclusion in the workplace, age is becoming increasingly important, especially given the ageing population in the Western world. Research has already demonstrated that organizations with widely varying age groups are at risk of age polarization, leading to ‘us-vs-them’ thinking, communication problems or conflicts. So, organizations where the balance between age groups is lost would do well to strive for a better age spread. Or not?
Kim De Meulenaere, Professor of Organizational Behavior and HRM at Antwerp Management School and the University of Antwerp, has been studying the demographics of organizations and its impact for years now. By analyzing over 4,000 Belgian companies, she found that organizations with evenly distributed age groups are significantly more productive than those without. But mind you, even with a perfect distribution, things can still go wrong if employees are not encouraged to share knowledge and collaborate. Notwithstanding this caveat, investing in an even spread of age groups will definitely pay off.
This is an important issue for companies today, as Professor De Meulenaere estimates that in at least half of Belgian companies, the age gap is too wide. The conclusion, however, is less straightforward, as new research shows: this negative impact mainly appears among older employees, who feel discriminated against and lose engagement, even going so far as to leave their job. This way, companies with strong age polarization stand at a greater risk of losing valuable knowledge and talent.
With younger employees, the opposite as found: “We noticed that being part of a large group of peers gives young employees a sense of belonging. It makes them feel more connected and engaged, whereas this is not the case for older workers. This makes sense, as young people are more homogeneous group: they are at the same point in their lives, their experiences are not so different yet. Older employees, on the contrary, come from all walks of life, so age is not the most relevant reason to relate to others.”
But what to do if your current age group distribution is not so perfect? How can you ward off the negative impact of age polarization?
Based on her research, Professor De Meulenaere has a few dos and don’ts to offer:
- It is not so easy to pick up early signs of workplace cliques. Seeing groups of people breaking off for lunch may be a sign, but then again, it is not so unusual for peers to hang out together. Conflict may be a sign too, but the lack of conflict may be just as dangerous. So, as a leader, it is key to not wait for problems to become apparent, but actively monitor the age distribution within your organization and teams, and to prevent age gaps from becoming social gaps.
- As often, good communication is part of the solution. You can promote communication between age groups, by, e.g., setting up regular team meetings. Facilitating knowledge transfer between juniors and seniors is also important and will stimulate both groups to perform better. In short: the more communication and interaction between generations, the more they will appreciate each other, regardless of their age.
- And of course, as a leader, you need to go first and set the example. If you are inclusive, if you provide equal opportunities to learn and grow to all age groups, if you make sure everyone has a say, if you address age discrimination and send the right message, then employees will follow your example.
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