When you consider increasing the diversity of your team, think about efforts to hire more female employees, or members of underrepresented minority groups.
Another important aspect of workplace diversity, though, is age. Much has been made of Millennials in the workforce, especially as they recently surpassed Gen Xers as the largest working generation. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials and Gen X both occupy around 34 percent of the workforce.
So that leaves the Baby Boomers. With the generation retiring at a clip of 10,000 per day, it can be easy to forget that they’re still very much a formidable force in the workplace. They represent 29 percent of the working population. The youngest Baby Boomers are only in their early 50s. And many older Baby Boomers continue to work, too, either by choice or necessity.
Baby Boomers don’t have the novelty factor going for them. And yes, they’re less likely to be well-versed in the latest technology. But there are still plenty of reasons you want them on your team.
This is the obvious one, right? The oldest members of the generation have been working for 45+ years, and the youngest ones have been working for 30. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for time.
Simma Lieberman runs a consulting business and works with organizations on building cultures of inclusivism. She herself is a Baby Boomer, the only one working in a seven-story office that’s filled with startups run by Millennials. The work arrangement is mutually beneficial.
“I can share mistakes, plus business knowledge that people much younger than me don’t have,” she says. “They respect my insights, and I learn a lot about moving fast to reach objectives.”
“Millennials need to stop looking at the age gap of Baby Boomers and ask themselves how all of this person’s experience can help me,” says Dennis Theodorou, Vice President of JMJ Phillip Executive Search. “We see this often as one of our companies is specialized in succession planning. We will interview a Baby Boomer with 40 years of years of experience and our board thinks that bringing in the up-and-coming star with an MBA can replace the Baby Boomer with a ‘little grooming.’ It doesn’t necessarily work that way.”
Alphabet (formerly Google) executive chairman Eric Schmidt arrived at the company in 2001 in the role of CEO, brought on to “baby sit” company co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. At the time, Schmidt was in his mid-40s, and Page and Brin were in their late 20s. With 18 years more life and business experience, the Baby Boomer was able to run the company in a way his brilliant-but-green Gen X counterparts simply weren’t equipped to do. All these years later, his results speak for themselves.
Page and Brin were grad students at Stanford when they conceived of Google. School is frequently referred to as a bubble: It’s a wonderful time and place to absorb new information and gain new experiences, but it can also be insular and not accurately reflect the actualities of the real world. Theodorou finds there’s frequently a wide gap between skills acquired at school and skills acquired in the workplace.
“With new graduates, you can spend a lot of time giving them guidance they never received in their upbringing and or at college,” he says. “Having employees from the Baby Boom generation around, who have ‘been there and done that’ in life and work, to help mentor and coach a young team has a tremendous amount of benefits.”
A different perspective
When a bunch of people with the same background get together, it can start to sound like an echo chamber. Their shared background means they’re more likely to see the world through the same lens, and fresh ideas are less likely to emerge.
“When it comes to problem-solving, having different generations of employees tackling the same issue brings a much higher level of creativity, perspective and empathy that is truly unique,” says Lidia Shong, head of marketing at aboutLife, a retirement-planning website. “Baby Boomers may understand certain customer problems better than anyone else and often have a better insight into what it takes to solve it.”
This alternate viewpoint can even be valuable in fields considered to be the exclusive domains of younger generations, like digital marketing.
“In my line of work, it helps to be incredibly open to how the widest variety of people search for new content and consume it,” says Michael Johnson, Director of Search Marketing for Proformative, a professional development platform for financial pros. “If I’m not pushing myself to be open to other ways of using search, I’m not as effective. I think Baby Boomers, having seen more change and experienced more types of human experience than a person just a few years into their career, are often more open to the variety of possibilities and not as easily taken in by the web fad du jour.”
In the tech world, youth is an undeniable asset and it can be easy to feel over-the-hill once you’ve crossed 30. But in many industries, youth can evoke skepticism rather than confidence. Consider this: would you rather be operated on by a 28-year-old resident fresh out of med school, or a surgeon with a couple of decades and thousands of surgeries under her belt?
Franchising is another industry where having a Baby Boomer on your team can up the credibility quotient. “In franchising, there has to be trust,” says Marty Welch, Chief Development Officer of Legacy Franchise Group. “There aren’t a lot of people in their 20s and 30s in the industry. Investors want to see a track record of business success.”
Real estate, he says, is the same way. “You don’t see a lot of high-performing real estate professionals who are in their 20s. If an agent is 23, 24 years old, clients are likely to think, ‘What do they know about the business? They don’t even have a mortgage!’”
Sometimes it seems like no one ever picks up the phone, let alone takes the time for an in-person conversation. Millennials have been texting, emailing and messaging since their formative years, so text-based communication is frequently their default. While this is fine with friends and family, it can present a serious disadvantage in the workplace.
“The younger generation is very quick with their thumbs, but not as quick with their tongue,” says Welch. “It can be awkward from an interpersonal standpoint once they arrive in the business world. The older generation would rather shake hands with someone than email. When you meet face-to-face or talk over the phone, tough conversations can be easier to have.”
Technology is advancing at a rate faster than ever before, and adopting new technologies is second-nature to Millennials. By and large they’re earlier adopters than Baby Boomers, but there’s also something to be said for how far Baby Boomers have come.
“While Millennials are usually more knowledgeable about the newest technologies, Baby Boomers have had to learn and adapt to different technologies – and completely different ways of doing things as a result – multiple times throughout their careers,” says Shong. “That experience gives them a certain adaptability and resilience that Millennials have yet to acquire. Many Baby Boomers have reinvented themselves in the workplace and can provide a wealth of information about how people adapt to new technologies and systems because they’ve been there.”
Rishabh Bahl, Co-Founder of the healthcare app TechWiss, agrees that having members on his team who have witnessed the digital revolution from the beginning gives him a leg up.
“A key benefit of having Baby Boomers on staff is that they have seen the transition of the age from manual/analog to digital,” he says. “That means they can help us understand what we have not seen as millennials, which could also possibly mean a newer approach to target that section of the market.”
The benefits of an intergenerational workforce are myriad. But, like most concerted efforts in hiring for diversity, it requires examining biases and checking them at the door.
“Younger staff need to understand and respect that they can not just jump over the decades of life and experience the more mature staff has had,” says Millennial co-founder Bahl. “I have overcome any bias I had in the past. We need to not look at age as a detriment.”