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Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Ph.D. Headshot

The Value of Multi-Generational Workplaces

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If you're reading this post at work, I'd like you to stop, look around you, and identify the four co-workers you collaborate with most often.

Got 'em? Now let me ask you -- how do these four co-workers compare to yourself in terms of age and on-the-job experience? If you're like most of us, you'll notice that, as the population rapidly ages, today's workplaces are more age-diverse than ever before. Your colleagues may no longer be close to your own age group and experience level. Does this hinder your collaboration? Probably not. But there is still widespread speculation that multiple generations in the workforce is a recipe for segregation or conflict. Why?

Some of it has to do with expectations and career progression in corporate culture -- employees want to move up to management, management to VP, VP to executive, and so on -- and the idea that one generation of workers may be holding up the advancement of the next. Then there are also stereotypes of older and younger workers, and the common assumption that these groups are inclined to clash in the workplace; that they simply don't work well together.

However, the Sloan Center on Aging and Work's pilot project called the "Executive Innovation Lab" has shown exactly the opposite -- when younger workers and older workers collaborate, it can be good for business. Unfortunately, most employers have not yet adapted their practices to harness the power of multi-generational workplaces to identify innovative business solutions.

To jumpstart this process we created the Lab. We invited a group of companies to come together who were interested in exploring how multi-generational teams of employees work together. We reached out to executives from various industries and asked them to handpick teams of employees to participate, taking care to select people from different age groups and experience levels. The teams then engaged in a rapid prototyping exercise where they were tasked with finding a solution to a pressing workplace problem in a rigidly structured amount of time.

What we found may surprise you. When these age-diverse teams were taken out of their normal work situations and tasked with quickly solving a challenging problem, they came up with very viable solutions in just a few hours. Brought together on teams different from what they were used to, these groups quickly found the type of innovate, creative solutions that are so hard to come by in the workplace.

What we saw in the Lab, across the board, is that when older workers, younger workers and executives can put myths and misconceptions behind then. And, when given supportive, creative opportunities to collaborate, their collective innovation is a real outcome.

Employees who participated in the Lab noticed this, too. At the end of the Lab, participants' perceptions of colleagues 10 or more years older than themselves actually changed. They reported seeing their older counterparts as more creative, more willing to learn, and more innovative than they had expected them to be. The employees were enthusiastic about their new teams, noting an injection of energy. Team members would grab their leaders in the hall and ask, "When are we going to have that meeting again?"

In addition, the executives expressed positive assessments of age-diverse teams; specifically, that they were able to get started working quicker, were more likely to push beyond difficult parts of their work, and had a new ability to reach quality results in a shorter period of time. Many of the organizations that participated in the lab are planning to implement the process for other projects. It would behoove other businesses to follow their lead.

Every employee comes to the workplace with a different set of life experiences. The veteran worker who has been in the same job for 30 years, the middle-age career changer and the 22-year-old just starting out may seem like they have irreconcilable outlooks, but in reality these contrasting perspectives are just what workplaces need to thrive.

Instead of adhering to the age-old myths that older workers are bad for business, today's corporate leaders must learn to take advantage of their age-diverse workforces. Today's workforce is aging more rapidly than ever before, and employers who act now to leverage the creativity of age experience and diversity will have an immediate competitive advantage over their peers. As the American economy starts to find its way out of the recession, we need innovative and creative workplaces more than ever before. Companies can make this happen, but only by creating conditions that leverage the strengths of the age diverse workforce.