Written by Lim Sia Hoe
With longer lifespans comes longer working years. Workplaces have become increasingly age diverse with workers from all age groups interacting together in shared spaces. Older workers find themselves communicating and increasingly reporting to younger colleagues, while young workers similarly have to work with and learn under their older counterparts.
This assimilation of a multi-generational workforce does not come about naturally. Conversely, it is more to our innate tendency to segregate ourselves. Growing up, many of us were taught to accept that children are to go to school, adults are to go to work, and seniors are to retire and rest. We deliberately structure our institutions to categorise by age. Family is perhaps the only truly age integrated social institution, and even then it is slowly eroding with today’s preference for smaller nuclear families or singlehood.
One of the more visible consequences of age segregation at the workplace is ageism. We often hear bitter stories by older workers accusing employers of not hiring or not retaining them because they are not as valuable or as affordable as their younger colleagues. Left unchecked, ageism threatens social cohesion and undermines overall productivity. We must therefore take proactive steps to foster integration between the young and old, and create a workplace culture that celebrates its multi-generational attributes.
How can we do it?
First and most fundamentally, we need a mindset change. Fair consideration should not be equated with same consideration. We must recognize the unique value that older workers can contribute to the workplace. Many bring with them years of experience, wisdom, loyalty and dependability. These qualities should be recognised and measured in a different manner from the qualities that we look for in a younger worker.
Second, employers and supervisors have to actively guard against ageism by employing positive practices. This includes having in place mixed-age work teams as much as possible to allow both sides to work together and leverage each other’s strengths. This also includes organizing programmes to help themselves and their staff understand the cultural differences in terms of management styles and communications between workers of different age groups. Of course, employers should also introduce progressive work arrangements such as flexible working hours, which serve to benefit all staff, not least older workers.
Third, older workers must certainly play their role too. They should be pro-active in engaging the younger colleagues and supervisors and demonstrating their value. Today, baby boomers form the demographic bulk. With their education and means, there is much they can teach those around them. And this extends beyond the workplace and into the communities. In Japan, many communities are re-purposing empty school classrooms to be meeting place for seniors. Often, these seniors volunteer to teach students on subjects like arts & crafts, or history, with good feedback.
Lastly, we continue to need strong leadership from the Government to work in partnership with the unions, employers, and workers, to promote intergenerational integration. We need measures to help workplaces transform and adopt better practices in relation to employing older workers. At the same time, we require a tough stance on fair employment practices, and non-age discrimination.
It is good to remind ourselves that integrating a multi-generational workforce does not come about on its own. Indeed, it would be costly to assume so. A concerted effort by all sides remains necessary to make this a reality.
Centre for Seniors, CFS!