Responding to the Growing Age-Gap in the Workplace

The U.S. workforce continues to expand, and an interesting phenomenon is occurring as a result – the workforce also is getting older.

According to Labor Department statistics, approximately half of all employment gains in 2018 were from Americans ages 55 and older. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, by 2024, 25 percent of the U.S. workforce will be workers over the age of 55, and a third of those workers will be older than 65. Of course, longer life expectancy and years of lower birthrates contribute to these numbers. But, declining rates of retirement savings and employees’ need for continuing healthcare are also major drivers in employees working into their later years.

Does this growing “age gap” in the workplace raise concerns for employers? 

In the restaurant industry,  Older adults have been the fastest-growing cohort of employees, according to the National Restaurant Association. The number of adults age 55 or older working in the industry jumped 70 percent between 2007 and 2018 and there are nearly two teenage restaurant workers for every employee age 55 or older. In 2007, teenagers outnumbered the 55-plus  by three to one.

What does this mean for compliance issues?  

Or, for workplace culture?  

Does this growing “age gap” in the workplace raise concerns for employers?  

And, if so, what are they?

There are some obvious answers. Then some that are not so obvious, such as advertising for a job opening: Is the employer choosing publicity avenues, such as social media, that are geared primarily to younger workers?  An employer would be wise to review how it publicizes job openings to ensure there is not implicit bias in how job openings are publicized.

Virtually all employers know that age is a protected category. Employers have long since eliminated questions on an application asking for age or birthdates, and employers know not to ask about age in an employment interview.  Most employers also know that you cannot have a “mandatory retirement age” for employees and that managers should not ask employees when they plan to retire. 

Performance Management

Many employers also have faced challenges in dealing with long-term employees who have been loyal, dedicated and strong performers but whose productivity has begun to wane.  Many employers find it difficult to be candid about this waning performance.  

Employers and managers should affirm – in word and deed – that older workers can be and often are valuable additions to a team or workplace. 

But, is saying nothing about the employee no longer meeting performance expectations merely the “soft bigotry of low expectations?”  An employer would be wise to be candid and transparent whenever any employee does not meet performance expectations, in both informal and formal ways, before some “boiling point” of frustration is reached.  If the failure to meet such expectations is tainting an employee’s reputation with management, it is inherently unfair NOT to say something.  Of course, it should be handled with appropriate grace, respect and affirmation – i.e., in ways that motivate improved performance.  

Furthermore, sometimes, such candor in performance management leads to needed discussions with a more senior employee about topics the employer should not initiate but can respond to.  For example, such candor in performance management discussions might lead to an employee’s asking about more flexible scheduling to meet his/her needs or desire to “slow down” a bit.  Or, such candor can lead a more senior employee to begin considering a “runway” toward retirement, a topic that the employer certainly should not initiate but can begin discussing when the employee raises it.  Or, such candor may simply lead to the employee’s renewed focus, commitment and, in turn, improved performance.  

The important thing for the employer to understand is it should not try to dictate which of these paths a candid performance management discussion prompts.  The employer should not be hesitant to raise the concerns about performance, but should not make stereotypical assumptions that the performance issues are related to age.  Attributing performance issues to such “ageist” stereotypes – either in discussions about performance or as an excuse to avoid such discussions – does not cultivate a culture of accountability and teamwork, and morale suffers.

Ageist Comments/'OK Boomer'

Employers also should remain vigilant to “ageist” comments, just as they would to racist or sexist language.  Most employers recognize that co-worker comments such as “old man” or “Methuselah” or “old as dirt” warrant some corrective action or coaching, especially if an employee claims offense at such language.  Employers should be aware of new forms of ageist rhetoric – such as “OK boomer” – an apparent dig at baby boomers. 

Employers also should be careful about calling an older applicant, with years of experience, an “overqualified” candidate.  That too often betrays an ageist stereotype.  Likewise, employers should not assume an applicant with extensive experience and credentials would not be interested or would not remain engaged in an entry level position.

Re-Invent Respect for 'Elders' But Be Discerning

I recall (and yes, I am a “boomer”) throughout my childhood and teen years, I was taught to respect my elders, to seek “gray-hair advice” when making a difficult decision, and that wisdom came only after years of experience.  My father used to say, when giving me advice about some challenge I faced, “It’s not that I’m any smarter, but I’ve just been around a long time.”

Employers can cultivate among the younger workforce a culture of respect for the more mature employee.

Employers and managers should affirm – in word and deed – that older workers can be and often are valuable additions to a team or workplace. These older workers often have seen a lot of different situations, have dealt with many challenging relational workplace issues, and often have been through the “fires of sorrow” – all of which can be difficult but effective learning opportunities.  An employer should never assume that older workers are not creative or innovative, as they likely have been through many real-life problem-solving exercises that years of experience can thrust upon us.

In this way, employers can cultivate among the younger workforce a culture of respect for the more mature employee, who has “been around a long time” and often (and hopefully) has gained valuable experience.  

But, I also recall another of my father’s sayings, “There are some people who have ten years of experience, and others who have one year of experience ten times.”  An employer must be discerning when dealing with any employee, but especially should be discerning in dealing with an employee who is older but continues to lack a level of maturity, resiliency or relational intelligence, or who betrays a failure to learn what experience should have taught.  An older employee who possesses a “know it all” mentality and refuses to learn from others is just as toxic as the younger worker who says “OK boomer” in expressing that the older worker has no value to the team.  In that discernment, the employer should avoid lazy language that may contain ageist assumptions that are not really intended and instead use specific language that more precisely identifies the performance issue at hand.   

'Effective and Transformative' Training

Almost all employers already have some training programs, at least operational training, for new employees.  More savvy employers have training for managers and supervisors on HR policies, discrimination laws, harassment, etc.  

However, and perhaps not too surprisingly, recent EEOC guidance has indicated that most employers’ training programs are not effective in reducing instances of workplace discrimination and harassment.  Why?  While there are likely a host of factors, one primary factor is that our training is merely rules-based information.  That is, some “talking head” (often a lawyer, ouch!) – in person or online – explains the rules and outlines what you should and should not do.  The focus of such training is primarily on the rules and litigation risk avoidance.  

Although such information is helpful and litigation risk avoidance is a worthy objective, such rules-based training is not “transformative.”  Effective training also must focus on relational goals and how to cultivate a healthy workplace community; a solely rules-based training is essentially fear-based (“do this or else”) or “pride-based” (follow the rules because you don’t want to be like those undesirables who don’t follow the rules).  Using fear and pride as primary motivators do not cultivate healthy relationships – whether in the workplace or beyond. 

Relationship-based training leads to greater engagement.

This reality impacts all “protected groups” – not just age. However, in training specifically designed to cultivate healthy workplaces where the age gap is broad, is it possible for an employer to develop management training that transforms the thinking of managers from seeing employees as “old” to seeing them as more experienced, or as having more expertise, or as have more relational wisdom?  Can an employer develop management training that, in short, transforms seeing “age” to seeing someone who is valuable, and has much to offer, and from whom the manager may actually learn valuable work- and life-lessons?  

Rules-based training does not transform this perspective.  What’s more, in my experience, such rules-based training actually contributes to the problem.  In rules-based training, a manager is actually being trained to see the differences that the training seeks to transcend (age, race, sex, religion, etc.). The differences become more apparent and become a source of possible trouble, thereby informing the manager to avoid or disengage with that person.  Why?  Because engagement with that person is just too risky.  

Relationship-based training, on the other hand, leads to greater engagement.  It focuses on the worth of all persons despite differences and, in fact, seeks to reinforce the value of such differences.  Diversity becomes appreciated as an important part of an effective team.  In this way, working together is promoted to accomplish much in efficient, effective, and quality customer service, and in turn, a healthier work environment.