By Nai Kanell
Director of Marketing
Can you mix millennials and baby boomers in the workplace? The baby-boomer generation once made up the largest percentage of the American workforce. It’s the generation responsible for huge economic growth and job creation. But according to Pew Research Center, Millennials will take over the top spot in 2019 (Also read millennials in the workplace – what do millennials love). . Some boomers are retiring, while others who still want to work may lose long-held positions due to outdated skill sets that don’t meet the demands of 21st century employment.
Baby boomers also are the generation labeled as “difficult” and “unwilling to change.” That’s an assumption driven by increased use of technology in the workplace and tech-savvy youngsters taking away their jobs. But that’s not the case. Though companies rely on sophisticated technical skills to drive higher profits, baby boomers aren’t being pushed aside due to their adaptability, or lack thereof.
Older Americans may be late adopters of technology, but they’re the generation that started careers when computers were first introduced to offices. As the capabilities of these computers changed, boomers adapted with them. They evolved their work styles from clunky desktops to handheld tablets and smartphones. And boomers kept up.
So where does the real issue lie? Ageism. According to AARP, two-thirds of older workers report encountering age discrimination. And it’s on the rise.
Now that people are living longer, they’re also working longer. But those as young as 50 find their employment in a rather precarious state. Because laying someone off based on age is illegal, businesses adopt a variety of techniques to weed out older workers. For instance, IBM denied older employees annual raises and put them on “resource action” lists, claiming they were restructuring. According to ProPublica, IBM encouraged these employees to “apply for other IBM positions, while quietly advising managers not to hire them and requiring many of the workers to train their replacements.” Given the size of IBM and, very likely, their legal department, each of these tactics toed the line of illegality without actually stepping over it.
It’s fair to suggest that replacing older, more tenured employees with younger ones is better for the bottom line, as they come at a fraction of the salary. But it overlooks key differences between Millennials and baby boomers when it comes to work. Millennials are notoriously flexible, open to change, and they work faster. They are also unlikely to stay at any one job for more than two years, making them a risky investment. On the other hand, boomers might work slower but their tenure gives them “institutional knowledge” that newer workers don’t have.
Ashton Applewhite, a blogger focusing on ageism, says “older workers go more slowly, but they’re more accurate. Age confers patience and coping skills, the ability to handle stress.” Their years of skill building are more relevant than the ability to learn every shortcut on Slack. Having a career, rather than a one- to two-year job, confers dependability and commitment—two key traits in any employee.
Technology is definitely leaving older generations behind, but not because they can’t hack it. Prasanna Tambe, Wharton professor of operations, information, and decisions, says “That is the moment we are in, where organizations are struggling to respond to new and difficult questions about their workforce needs that are being raised by the disruption of their traditional business models or by technologies like new internal communication tools or artificial intelligence systems. It’s not surprising if this uncertainty further exacerbates the tensions that already arise naturally when employees of different ages are together in the workplace.”
Businesses are changing rapidly and are unsure of what to do, so they’re making decisions based on worker stereotypes and the idea that young means fresher, better. In ditching older employees and high-turnover millennials, there is a lack of knowledge transfer from one employee to the next. When career employees leave, they take years of company changes, projects, successes, and failures with them.
Rather than axing older employees for more app-happy Millennials, employers should consider co-mentoring programs in which younger and older employees work together to bridge knowledge and skill gaps. Older employees don’t need severance packages; they want the opportunity to demonstrate they know what they are doing. Boomers lived through decades of modernization and the need to keep up. They are, after all, the greatest generation.