May 17, 2012

Age in the workplace

There is a famous line by Yoko Ono that sums up what this article will explore:

some people are old at 18 and some are young at 90… time is a concept that humans created.” 

This quote is inspiring because for a moment, it helps us free our minds from social constraints that physical ties bring and instead allows us to take an individual for what they are without any aesthetical or biological distractions. Often, we are too quick to take physical determining factors like age in to account before we learn what their mind offers first.

Worker 1: “That was an awesome presentation.”

Worker 2: “Yeah. Can’t believe he’s only twenty.”

Worker 1: “WHAT! For God’s sake. We’ll have to re-write it.”

We see ageism in many forms in the workplace. Youngsters are continuously judged for being inexperienced, untrustworthy or spoilt; sourced and embedded into a company as the office dog’s body. Older employees can also face the brunt of ageism, although respected for being experienced and longstanding, they can also be faced the possibility of being turfed out by a younger model, someone with a new curiosity, fresh ideas and faster typing speed.

 I asked my followers on Twitter what ideas sprung to mind when I said the words ‘young people in the workplace’ and the responses had a similar thread running through it. People think young people are still “inevitably seen as bumblers”. The ones that makes the tea and follow the rulebook their predecessors’ left for them. These newbies have to follow in the footsteps of the older workers, learn what they learnt, and earn their own rights to passage in the same way. Otherwise, it would be unfair right? But, without giving them a leeway, often the new kid on the block might be overlooked and under the new suit and obvious nerves hold the winning ticket to a business pitch. They might be the one to come up with a sparky new idea in the brainstorm. They might know something technical that you don’t. They might be the target demographic for your campaign. They might have insider knowledge and crucial social insights to the point you’re trying to make.

An important thing to remember in the workplace is that the most successful companies are often made up of a variety of ages, interests, talents. The way in which we, as a collective, perform successfully and deliver top class work is not by running a company built up of individuals that are carbon copies of each other but by having teams that are all specialists in their own right. The 49-year-old man from Detroit may have dealt with a huge global crisis in 1984 and his wealth of expertise is invaluable. The fashionable 21-year-old executive from New Jersey may not know how to manage a difficult client but knows how to build a complex website from scratch from using the internet from pretty much the day she was born.

Age is not the same as experience. It is experience that makes some one equipped for a job, and over time we gather experience; and age is a product of time. With this in mind, it is important to help nurture young talent as they enter the working world who may have different ways of working and different ideas but hold the same values.

To encourage development we must offer varied and rich experience, we should show them respect to foster their interests, be supportive to not scare them away, but importantly give them some tough assignments so they get hardened up to the unpredictable working world.

Here my top reasons millennials should be respected in the workplace:

  • They are social media savvy: Millennials were brought up with the Internet practically installed in their brains. They are naturals at navigating Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare (you name it). They may lack strategy but they were using it first and they know what consumers actually look for when they are online.
  • They are multi-taskers: They are used to synching up their multitude of devices and getting everything in one place. They’ve been organizing their calendars, music, contact lists, emails, Facebook friends and apps on their phones from day one. Texting and tweeting whilst writing lecture notes? Impressive.
  • They can balance work and life: Millennials are not from the generation that feel they have to work every hour of every day. They understand the importance of taking a break (often called a gap year) and know not to burn-out. Having this inbuilt desire to balance their lives is something beneficial to productivity.
  • They studied their passions: They are more likely to fall in love with our jobs. They are told at school and university to study subjects they enjoy and to follow dreams. They know that it’s OK to change jobs every now and again and to discover who you are. They believe it’s okay to try our new areas of growth, be creative, dip into new things, experiment with life.
  • They are modern: Jobs are changing, so are household dynamics and social values. They don’t need to stay in a job just to be comfortable and secure. They don’t have to be an alpha-male breadwinner or a part-time stay at home mum or work in a gender-specific role. They don’t have to have a job for social reasons or because their parents ‘told them to’. For some opportunities they don’t even need a degree. They just need gusto.

Any thoughts? Tweet me here. 

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