Let’s put an end to generational discrimination

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Let’s stop generational discrimination. It’s time. In fact, it is as overdue as that book you checked out from your high-school library and never returned before graduation.

It is time to stop generational discrimination and recognize the damage that it does. I’m sure you’ve seen it happen where an individual is part of a team or a work group, and their age is different than that of the majority, and in some manner or another, they’re called out for it.

Perhaps the comment is complementary (e.g., “It’s good to have a young person with new energy and fresh ideas in the room with us.”), but often it is not. I suspect many make such comments out of an unconscious fear of the unknown. Social psychology identifies the “similarity effect” as those who are similar tend to like one another. This helps explain how people choose their friends, spouses and groups they tend to follow in social media. When personality, interests and past experiences in life are shared, people take comfort in knowing the person they are interacting with is of a similar background. Naturally, generational and age differences can get in the way of the similarity effect.

It’s not hard to relate to this concept. Just think about how someone’s face lights up when they discover they have a mutual acquaintance or are from the same hometown. If they enjoy the same hobbies, political ideology, or attended the same school, they tend to naturally like one another.

To illustrate this, I know I remember exactly where I was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, but I can’t relate to the feeling of pride others had when they watched astronauts walk on the moon.

Big events tend to bring people together because we all share them in our common experience. If we were alive in 2001, we probably remember seeing the twin towers fall, the day the hostages were released in Iran (1981), the ticker-tape parade in New York following the end of World War II (1945), and hearing Al Michaels say, “Do you believe in miracles?!” when the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team forever became known as “the miracle on ice” (1980).

But what if we’ve only heard of these events, or worse, had no idea about them at all? These are some notable dates and history, and odds are most readers are familiar with them, but others, perhaps less significant, are probably generational specific.

Do you remember when McDonald’s used Styrofoam packaging? Pop culture is loaded with references that in many cases transcend generations and in other cases, simply don’t. Recently I explained to my children that older cars in the 1970s had ashtrays and cigarette lighters; which was hard for them to imagine in an era where tobacco use is strongly discouraged. Once at work I used the phrase, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and the entire room of people, made up of multiple generations, understood I was conveying that a problem was bigger than we could handle on our own (e.g., like Roy Schneider did as Chief Brady in the 1975 film “Jaws”). Why? Because the movie has spanned generations. Conversely, another time I walked into the office and said, “It’s time to make the donuts,” and two of our younger team members looked at me, puzzled. Only those who happened to be dialed into TV commercials in the early 1980s will know I’m suggesting I need to get to work, just like the day before, and the day before that… (e.g., like the Dunkin’ Donuts baker in the famed commercials).

These references are fun (much of the time) as they help us to relate to one another and convey concepts or feelings, but they can create a divide as well.

I’m not suggesting there’s no place in business for pop-culture references; rather, that we need to be more sensitive to our audience and be prepared to explain them in a manner that doesn’t call someone out or make them appear to be uninformed or naïve.

There are currently five defined generations working side by side across a myriad of industries. Most articles written on the subject tend to offer insights as to the nuance and differences between each of the five groups, attempting to help the reader to navigate this seemingly complex pattern of behavior based on who they’re dealing with. There’s no problem with that. Rather, the problem rests in the stereotypes and prejudice that have become so pervasive among groups based on age.

When we go to great lengths to try to define a person by their age, using stereotypical observations, we reinforce those stereotypes and create a non-inclusive environment for those individuals. In my years working in human resources, there are some universal desires that I’ve observed in people across all generations. Most fundamental to all of these desires is to be respected in the workplace. If we take the time and effort to avoid labeling the generations and/or refrain from addressing team members differently based upon their age, we will promote a more positive workplace culture that leverages the best in everyone.

Recently I asked members of our management team if they have witnessed or had ever experienced feelings of being excluded based on age and generational differences and several indicated they had and offered to share their insights.

Morgan Hanks, KDL’s manager of user experience, shared, “As the youngest person on the management team, I have often faced the eyerolls or shared laughter at my expense. When making a suggestion for the good of our organization, I have been met with comments such as, ‘Hah! We tried that back in 1999, probably before you were even born!’ or ‘I have been doing this job longer than you have been alive.’ From my experience, these types of comments are meant to be good-natured and to poke a bit of fun at the newbie, but at what expense? In these moments I am left feeling like I am outside of a good joke looking in, or as if I am not respected due to my age. I value institutional knowledge and respect those who have paved the way before me. To create a more inclusive environment, these comments could be reframed by saying, ‘I’d be curious to explore that again. We did try it back in 1999, but so much has changed since then!’ Cross-generational work is imperative to moving our services forward. We can contentiously learn from the past while looking forward for solutions. I would never want to risk stunting someone’s creative idea because they felt they did not have the years of service to speak up.”

Regional Manager Eric DeHaan adds; “I’ll admit, the first time I became aware of the “OK, boomer” meme, I think I chuckled. While most of us have encountered people of a certain generation that aren’t comfortable with newer technology, it’s an absurd notion to assume this always holds true. It’s a caricature. Often, caricatures are intended to make us laugh, but the reality is they can also enforce unhealthy or untrue stereotypes and, unfortunately, after enough exposure, these caricatures can become perception. While I don’t believe there was any true malice in its original intent, the reinforcement of the inept ‘boomer’ stereotype has no doubt led to false assumptions and most likely, poor decisions. These same errors in judgment can be applied to other generations as well.”

While some employers have long promoted a culture where workers across multiple generations are valued and not put down or mocked, others are increasingly taking notice that inclusiveness includes showing respect to all persons, regardless of age.

By eliminating the labels, stereotypes, caricatures, or assumptions that go with them, we can all work together to lift our teams up, ensuring they truly belong, all while leveraging the value that each person brings to work every day, be it their first year on the job, their 10th, or their 40th.

Brian Mortimore, SPHR-SCP, is the director of human resources and organizational development at Kent District Library. He has taught classes, consulted, and has been published on a variety of topics related to human resources and business management.

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