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Multigenerational Workforce and the Future of Work Skip to content

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What's the Future of Work?

Bob Edwards talks about multigenerational workforces and why they work so well

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Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP Take On Today. People are living and working longer than ever and each day a staggering 10,000 people turn 60 years old. As a result, 75 year olds are sharing workspaces with 20 year olds, and all ages in between. This presents an important opportunity for employers to harness the talent different age groups bring to the job. And like more ethnically diverse workforces, studies have shown that productivity and performance only increase on teams with age diversity.

Today we look at why those workforces well work. Joining me today is Mike Ellison who helps take us through this topic. How you doing, Mike?

Mike Ellison: Doing great, Bob, how are you?

Bob Edwards: I'm good.

Mike Ellison: So we're going to hear the perspectives from some of the sharpest thinkers in the field of business management, Adam Grant and Rich Karlgaard who will contend that there are significant benefits to being part of a diverse workforce. This summer AARP hosted a global summit called the Future Of Work For All Generations. Former secretary of state, Madeline Albright, spoke at this event, as did all of our guests today. Let's listen in to secretary Albright who provided some perspective on her motivations to keep working, quite happily I might add, at the age of 82.

Rich Karlgaard: Among our guests today, a very special one is secretary Madeline Albright, a distinguished scholar and professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University.

Sec. Albright: I really do think there needs to be a respect for generational interaction. By the way, there's no book that's ever written or speech given that doesn't quote Robert Frost. So in my book, I have a quote that is something like, "The older I get, the younger are my teachers." And I think the intergenerational aspect is very, very important.

Mike Ellison: Today we'll dive deep into the implications of this multigenerational workforce Secretary Albright speaks of. And next week we'll take a look at people who are embarking on new careers later in life. So let's take a step back and pose a couple of questions to think about upfront. What is the future of work? How is it impacting the way we think about jobs, skills, and wages? And how is it shaping the way we think about aging in the workplace?

Let's start with Bob's conversation with Debra Whitman, AARP's chief public policy officer. She's a policy research and thought leader focused on supporting older people and their families. Let's not forget what secretary Albright said. "The older I get, the younger are my teachers." And she notes, "The intergenerational aspect is very important."

Bob Edwards: Why are multigenerational workforces an opportunity for employers to prosper?

Debra Whitman: Well, workers actually like it. 70% of workers like to work with people in other generations. They learn from them. And that can be me asking some of my new employees latest technology or mentoring them on issues that they're learning about, be it social security or the history of Medicare. I think we all have something to learn from each other, and the diversity of age within a workplace actually adds to the overall environment.

Bob Edwards: That's a plus for the employers too?

Debra Whitman: It's a plus for the employers because the market is also multigenerational. If we look at the economic activity of just people, Americans over age 50, it's $7.6 Trillion of consumption that they have every year. So if it was his own country, people over age 50 in America would be the third largest economy. If you're a business, and you're trying to sell to this market, it really helps if you have people that know that market that are a part of it as well.

Bob Edwards: So that's good for consumers too.

Debra Whitman: It's good for everybody, honestly. Many of us either want to work or have to work later in life. So having employers that embrace people of all ages, not discriminate against them, is really crucial.

Mike Ellison: So while it seems like a definite advantage for employers to hire aging workers, I'm not so sure that message has sunk in. We discussed how employers can step up and embrace multigenerational workforces.

Bob Edwards: How can employers make changes and embrace multigenerational workforces?

Debra Whitman: Well, a key is understanding, first, they've got likely a multigenerational workforce already, really thinking about people as not just their age, but also the stage of work they are in their career and their opportunity. Then looking at the programs they have that may have biases built into it. So are your training programs open for people, whatever stage of their career they may be in? I think it's the creativity of really thinking about the future of work as being your workforce and making the investments.

Bob Edwards: Do you have any examples of employers who are trying to recruit multigenerational workforces?

Debra Whitman: Well, a lot of employers are creating benefits that appeal to different generations. Goldman Sachs started a program to get women who had left for maternity leave back into the organization. But they realize a lot of people leave for caregiving and for other reasons. So they've expanded that program. Another company, Abbott Labs, realized that their younger workers weren't contributing to their 401k. So now they're matching payments for student loans. So there's a lot of innovation out there. Countries are actually doing interesting work in this area.

Singapore put together a program for lifelong learning and job training and put major investment by the country itself to make sure that workers had the skills and knowledge that they needed as they age. Amazon, as you know, just put up 700 million in order to retrain their workers. So again, I think there's lots of really good ideas. I wish more companies were taking them on.

Bob Edwards: Now what is AARP doing to make a difference?

Debra Whitman: We've really tried to get employers not just to think about the future of work as being technological change or automation or AI, but really to be thinking about the workforce itself. To do that, we have a pledge for our employers and have hundreds of employers that have signed off not to discriminate during hiring. But we've also expanded that to say, "How can we work with you to think about the issues of retraining, of lifelong learning, of hiring?" All of these things that are going to be part of your workforce of the future. We're joining with the World Economic Forum and the OECD to do global research because we know other countries, their demographics are far more advanced than the United States. And there are good ideas all over the world.

Mike Ellison: Our discussion and learnings from Deb give us hope that real change can take place in this arena, and that aging workers have the potential to transition from targets of discrimination to being valued as an important and necessary part of the workforce everywhere. But there's a lot of work to be done, clearly.

Bob Edwards: Mike, I sense that you have something to say about this.

Mike Ellison: First of all, I challenge the term multigenerational, intergenerational generational period. When you allow others to establish the lexicon, if you will, the pool of words from which we can select to have this conversation, I feel like we're already backed into a corner.

Bob Edwards: Well, how would you describe it? An inclusive workforce?

Mike Ellison: I would call it an inclusive workforce. I would call it an expansive workforce. So if we say expansive, then that means we're constantly growing. We're constantly learning from each other.

Bob Edwards:  Well, it lacks specificity. We're talking about a specific lack of inclusiveness when we don't include older generations in the workforce.

Mike Ellison: Sure. I definitely understand why we have to frame it that way so that the conversation becomes more accessible to more people. It's worth re-evaluating the terms and the words we use all together. People would argue that we're all part of different generations, but here we are all in the same place, same space, same time, working together.

Bob Edwards: And that's called multigenerational.

Mike Ellison: Well, I would argue Mr. Edwards, I would call it the continuum. I think we're part of a continuum. I've certainly learned from you in the context of this podcast and our conversations. I don't know that you've learned anything from me yet. But hopefully I could sprinkle in something about the Wu Tang Clan that you will find fascinating. I will continue to push for terms like expansive. Inclusive works. I think age diverse workforce works, but my preference is the continuum, definitely.

Because my teachers are both younger and older than I am for sure. I'm thankful. As I age, my experiences become richer. And I'd never say to a 32-year-old or an 82-year-old like secretary Albright, "Hey, you know what? You're aging out." No, I don't think that's something you're ever going to hear me say. So we take these experiences and we grow from them.

Bob Edwards: Well, thanks to you. Thanks to Debra Whitman for joining us to learn about the hundreds of companies that have committed to valuing and hiring older workers, visit AARP.org/employerpledge.

Mike Ellison: Partnerships and coalitions are important to shore up efforts that can make a difference towards shaping better policy, both at home and abroad for people 50 plus. And that's why AARP has working with international organizations including the World Economic Forum and over 50 employers for a project to share resources, knowledge, and best practices for making workplaces better for all generations.

Leaders from several companies discussed how they are supporting the workforce of the future. At this unique summit over the summer, speakers included Secretary Albright, Debra Whitman, with notable others like Rich Karlgaard, bestselling author and award winning entrepreneur. As well as Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, author, and a professor at the university of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

Now both Rich and Adam added layers to this conversation that we'd like to highlight today. Rich touched on something else we'd like to highlight. It's the concept of and title of his recent book, Late Bloomers. The title is a bit deceiving, in fact. Because the concept of blooming, or coming into your own in your career with everything aligned from experience to education to passion and more, this can happen multiple times throughout your life. Maybe we should think of ourselves as multiple bloomers, or periodic perennials instead.

Rich Karlgaard: If we think of blooming at any age, it's really that perfect alignment of our talents, our passions, and our sense of purpose. That is something that will give our passions a deeper quality, passions we'll be willing to sacrifice for, and work hard for. But over the course of a lifetime, our passions, and our talents and our purpose will evolve also. Why that is so encouraging, it means that late booming isn't a one time event. Late blooming is really one of many serial blooming events that can happen in our lives.

You think about somebody in a career today, they're going to be, especially technology shapes societies we have today. Your technical gifts peak pretty early. Your management and executive gifts peak a little later, usually in middle age for most people in their 30s, 40s and 50s that come into their own in terms of their executive skills, management skills, leadership skills and so forth. So blooming stands a much greater chance at any age of our lives when we align our talents, our passions, and our purpose. But know that our talents, passions, and purpose are a moving target throughout our life.

Mike Ellison: So here's what we can take from that. We have a chance to become our best selves to bloom, if you will, at any age of our lives. When age, experience, energy, passion, and opportunity line up, that gives us an opportunity to bloom, or be our best self. And to harness this alignment we need to be aware of and continue to hone and refine our talents, passions, and purpose throughout our entire life's journey, especially given the MIT study Rich referenced earlier.

This is something to be inspired by and to aspire to as we age, and to think about whether we're employers or employees as we chart our career paths. Now, Adam Grant added a layer to this we'd like to underscore that speaks to the multigenerational workforces, like the ones spanning many generations deb spoke of at the top of our show.

Bob Edwards: People are living longer than ever before and working longer to. How do employers benefit from multigenerational workforces?

Adam Grant: So I think that they're both obvious and non obvious ways that employers can benefit. I think the obvious ways have to do with different skills and different communication tendencies. Obviously it's that we look to the millennials often for digital savvy and for all kinds of technical expertise that the rest of us don't have access to. Right?

I think the non obvious ways to me are more interesting, which is when you look at research on diversity, and this was originally demonstrated with age and gender and racial diversity. But I think you could apply it to any category. The more diverse a group is, the more nervous people are coming in. You think that that would undermine their ability to collaborate. It actually has the opposite effect.

When people are nervous, they prepare more. So they end up spending more time thinking through their ideas. They know that if I have to interact with somebody who's twice my age, I'm not entirely sure if I'm going to be super clear. So I want to think really hard about how to make my idea palatable to that audience. That means they're more likely to hear it and take it seriously. So the very discomfort that makes people wary about intergenerational collaboration can actually improve information sharing.

Mike Ellison:  And to round out our discussion highlights today, Adam references a study that really puts some impactful data behind the power of the 50 plus person in the workforce.

Bob Edwards: Howard's and age discrimination holding us back?

Adam Grant: I worry a lot about this. So I think we have a stereotype, in particular, that young people are more creative and innovative. And empirically, that's definitely not true. I think it might even be the case that more often the opposite is true. So Ben Jones at Northwestern has some fascinating evidence that if you're a 40 year old entrepreneur, you're more than twice as likely to start a company that's in the top 0.1% of growth rates and revenue for all companies nationwide.

There's also evidence, there's a really neat study that came out about a decade ago now from a German company that introduced a suggestion box. The question was, what people are going to contribute the most valuable ideas. Turned out that by far the most valuable ideas came from people 55 and older. Their ideas, on average per person, were worth about $25,000 US. Most other age groups, their average idea was worth less than $1,000 each.

And you think, well, why is that? Maybe as you get older, you improve your judgment. You might have 20 ideas, and you realize 17 of them are bad, and you only submit your best three. That was not the case. The older groups of employees, 55 and up, actually submitted way more ideas, an average of about three quarters of an idea per person as opposed to about 0.1 ideas per person. And so one of the things that was happening was as people gained experience, they were more likely to see lots of different kinds of problems and begin to realize, "Hey, I might, I might have the background to do something about that. So they were more able to submit solutions as well. I think that we need to shatter this stereotype that innovation and creativity belongs to the young.

Mike Ellison: As someone who truly enjoys shattering stereotypes, this and all the other data points, the contributions, partnerships and advocacy efforts being brought to light on the future of work leaves me inspired. It leaves me happy and even a little more ambitious and optimistic as I look at my own personal journey. We hope it leaves you with the same optimism and the same take on today.

So remember that our discussion about lifelong learning and career shifting will take place next week with Wilma Consul, our newest contributor. In the meantime, if you'd like to hear a story about a man from Iowa named Jack Gross, dedicated to fighting age discrimination in the workplace, visit AARP.org/Podcast, and check out the two-part Jack Gross story. In my very first Take On Today assignment with Bob Edwards. I can't help but think of Jack in light of our subject matter today, and how his life as an unexpected advocate, as well as his entire career, reflects all the attributes we've associated with workers as they age.

Bob Edwards: For a lot of people, this stings. You get to a certain point and you're told, "We don't need you anymore. We have got these young folks coming in and you don't have anything to offer." But that's not true. Well, it's another thing. It's not just the feeling that you don't anything offer. It's, "Will you please retire?" I'm waiting my time. This group that came in early, and I'm speaking from experience here. I was in an organization where everyone was very young, and we all grew old together. And now the people behind us say, "Time to go. It's our turn." You know what? I respect that. I see their point. You're occupying space that the younger folks, and God bless them, that they have ambition, and they want a score and they want to get ahead and they want to be somebody.

Mike Ellison: Is it an either or dynamic? Could it possibly be-

Bob Edwards: It shouldn't be. There should be a spot. There should be a place for more seasoned folk who've been around the block a couple of times that should not deny opportunity to young, talented people who need their talent recognized, or they're going to wither on the vine much too early.

Mike Ellison: Right. I mean, in every form there's mentorship. But the learning is reciprocal.

Bob Edwards: I think you got a key right there. There should be a mentorship program in every organization.

Mike Ellison: Is it an either or scenario? In order for me to truly become my best self and grow, I have to force you out the door? I've got to be ambitious and show my worth? Or can it be that when the time is right, I get the opportunity to establish myself?

Bob Edwards: I think institutional memory is also important and it's valuable counsel to the young and helps them develop their talent and realize all they can be.

Mike Ellison:  In sports, Charles Barkley talked about Moses Malone being like a father to him. To this day, as bold as Charles Barkley is, when you hear him talk about Moses Malone, he almost gets sheepish and sad and reverent, and still calls him Dad and in tears up and talks about how Moses Malone taught him how to act like an adult and a professional and really shaped the course of his whole career.

Bob Edwards: Well, I don't know anyone in sports who doesn't value a coach, a manager somewhere along the way. They don't think they did it entirely by their own talent.

Mike Ellison: No. And if you look in the family, there's qualitative and quantitative research that shows children are more self-confident, smarter. They just feel better about themselves in life when they're able to be around aunts, uncles, grandparents. But for some reason, we think that that does not translate into the workplace.

Bob Edwards: Next week, we'll get perspective on another facet of the workforce, starting a new career later in life. Visit AARP.org/work for more career resources, including online career fairs, resume tips, and companies committed to hiring and valuing experienced workers. For more visit AARP.org/podcast. Become a subscriber. Then be sure to rate our podcast on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and other podcast apps. Let us know what you think of the show by taking our survey at the link in the episode summary, or visit AARP.org/TOTsurvey. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

People are living and working longer than ever. Listen to find out why multigenerational workforces work so well.

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