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Let’s Talk About X – And Y and Z: How to overcome a fear of age diversity

A friend recently posted a photo of her five-year-old daughter playing with teddy bears and Barbies, just as children have done for many decades. But there was something different about how the treasured toys were lined up and the child was holding a thermometer. As it turns out, she was playing COVID hospital. We’ve all been impacted by the pandemic. It is an unprecedented, shared global experience and a defining, historic moment. But we have not been impacted the same. What children learn and observe about the world at an early age is hugely influential to their development. During those brain-developing years behaviors, values, and attitudes are shaped. Like trees, we mature, and adapt to outside forces, but the foundation from which we start is always there. Our roots are ever-present and undeniably strong. This is how generations are formed. Shared childhood experiences lead to the formation of similar responses to those experiences. Regrettably, there have been efforts to squelch the exploration of generations, with some people believing the practice leads to stereotyping. Other pundits have referred to generational research as a waste of time, believing all people are more or less the same. While I can appreciate the intent to rid the world of stereotypes and find similarities, there’s a fatal flaw in each of these arguments:

Inclusion doesn’t happen by ignoring our differences. It can only happen when we learn to recognize, understand, accept, and celebrate our differences.

Here and now, in the aftermath of the George Floyd incident and #MeToo movement, conversations about race and gender have become more prominent, and equity initiatives have edged closer to the forefront of priorities for social change. But all too often, conversations about age diversity are considered too controversial and too difficult, and the perspectives of younger generations consistently end up being dismissed or ignored. Delve deeper and you’ll understand why: Young people are the personification of change. They are a reminder change is necessary and unyielding, which is a difficult truth to accept. Rooted in our social structure, discrimination towards young people goes back thousands of years. It’s a ‘kids these days’ attitude which translates into low expectations of young workers, expected to maintain a hard-working but humble profile as they learn the ropes from more experienced colleagues. A spike in age discrimination occurred when a generation came of age alongside the mainstreaming of the home computer. Even though they had no power over the technological advancements and parenting shifts which influenced their upbringing, Millennials were commonly referred to as coddled, entitled trophy kids and self-centered snowflakes.

This isn’t funny. This is discrimination—the last accepted form of discrimination in our society—and it’s getting worse. New research from NYU reveals workplace discrimination is at an unprecedented high. Researchers described the attitude older workers have towards young people as hostile, negatively impacting career trajectories, contributing to toxic workplace environments, and fueling employee turnover.

The fact is, for the past 20 years, engagement has been declining –especially among younger generations – in workplaces, membership organizations, and even religion.

If you dismiss this fact as a character flaw (young people aren’t joiners), then you are likely struggling to understand why your organization has become increasingly irrelevant in a changing marketplace and ineffective at building a community inclusive of young people. The disengagement of young people in any organization is the direct result of young people feeling disrespected, overlooked, and misunderstood. The inability to embrace change — and prioritize the inclusion of every age group — is alienating entire populations and leading to the untimely demise of countless organizations. The children playing COVID hospital with their toys are observing more than pandemic. Their roots are being shaped by disruption and conflict, and an overwhelming lack of inclusion. How can we ensure a better future for them? Educate. Not every Millennial likes avocado toast. That’s a stereotype. There’s a difference between the study of generations and the stereotyping, and it’s important to teach the difference. Discuss. While conversations about inclusion have commenced in the areas of race and gender, they have stopped short of generations. It’s time to talk about it and prioritize the practice of listening to and learning from people representing different ages and experiences. Accept. We are not the same, stereotypes do exist, and ignoring these truths will do more harm than good. Reflect. Be mindful of your own response to the word ‘generation’ and biases you may have about generations other than your own. Consider whether biases are influencing your ability to positively lead, support, or contribute to intergenerational workplaces and community-building efforts. Inequality exists, as does incomprehension of the inequality. That’s why age diversity initiatives and conversations about generations are important. Data shows many organizations are failing to be inclusive of new ideas and new people, often neglecting the presence and perspectives of young people, or making assumptions on what they think young people represent, expect, or need. For this reason alone, we must be diligent about teamwork, collaboration, and taking the time to know – really listen to, support, prioritize, understand, and include— everyone in the community and not just a select few. When we can recognize we’re not all the same and understand there are new and different needs and perspectives represented in our workplaces communities, the controversies, conflicts, and disengagement will subside. Then, and only then, will our organizations successfully engage people of all ages and create inclusive communities for generations to come.

Want to learn more about engaging multiple generations in your organization? We can help. Contact us, and let’s bridge the generational gap together.

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