Age Diversity in the Workplace: 5 Lessons from The Intern

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Have you seen The Intern? If you haven’t, I’d recommend you watch it. It’s a film starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro and although I doubt it was the writer’s intention, it’s about age diversity in the workplace.

But wrapped in a slick-looking, Hollywood style package of course.

In a nutshell – and without giving anything away: Anne Hathaway’s character, a woman in her thirties, has created a super successful internet company that has gone from 0 to 220 employees in only eighteen months time.

Robert De Niro’s character, a 70-year old retired widower, would like nothing more than to work again. Among other things, as he puts it himself, for ‘the connection, the excitement, a place to go, the feeling to be needed’.

Anne’s company participates in a trial program for senior interns, Robert applies and there you have your story.

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Here’s a Learning Bite episode that we’ve made on this topic

While I was watching this film though, I couldn’t help but pick up on some, albeit perhaps slightly over-dramatized (because well, Hollywood), valuable lessons about age diversity in the workplace. The real, non-movie workplace that is.

And since I love these kinds of analogies, I thought I’d share them with you in a post. But before we get started, for those of you who are curious about the film, here’s a little preview (with a hilarious opening scene):

Benefits of age diversity in the workplace

1. Age diversity means skill diversity

Sure, we live in a rapidly digitalizing world and our workplace is no exception to this. So yes, we need people who speak ‘tech’ and who know their devices. But we also need people who know how to talk to potential business partners in a meeting, experienced negotiators who speak ‘human’. 

The beauty of age diversity in the workplace lies in the fact that every generation brings a different set of skills to the table. A lot of the time, they’ll be able to complement each other: when a Millennial or Gen Z-er doesn’t know how to close the deal without giving the client the impression he or she is being forced into something, a seasoned baby boomer could save the day.

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Conversely, when a boomer struggles with your CRM system or the latest company software, someone from a younger generation will be able to explain to them what is what.

2. Age diversity opens the mind

If your employees are all from (more or less) the same generation, it’s easy for them to start thinking that everyone looks at the world the same way they do. They’re likely to have a similar thought process. From a business perspective, this isn’t great: it narrows down your potential customer base.

Having a diversified workforce in terms of age – but also in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation – opens people’s minds. Think about it: if you work in a team with people between 20 and 70 years old, you’ll hear various perspectives on every subject and idea that comes up. You’ll discover there’s a more than one way to approach a situation. As a result, your organization will appeal to a much broader customer demographic.

3. Age diversity creates mutual mentors

It’s no secret that the global workforce is aging. Thousands of baby boomers are retiring every day and since their generation is considerably bigger than those who came after them, this is creating a fair amount of challenges.

One of the biggest aging workforce challenges lies in the skill gap that retiring workers leave behind: there physically aren’t enough people to replace those who go away, let alone replace the skills that they possess.

Age diversity in the workplace enables organizations to launch initiatives such as a two-way mentoring program. This has several advantages. Experienced workers can teach their younger peers everything they know and vice versa.

If done in a timely manner, this kind of mentoring can ensure the transfer of crucial skills. When eventually the time comes for your older workers to retire, you’ve got a group of younger employees (who learned from the best) fully operational and ready to take over. No risk for the continuity of the business. Now that’s what we’d like to call some smart succession planning!

But let’s not give the experienced employees all the credits here.

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Younger generation workers can certainly learn their older peers a thing or two when it comes to digital tools and technology. As such, age diversity in the workplace creates a two-way mentoring street.

4. Have an adequate onboarding process!

There’s this endearing moment in The Intern where Robert De Niro smoothly opens his MacBook and then doesn’t really know what to do next. Luckily, the guy who sits next to him subtly shows him which button to push and an embarrassing moment has been avoided.

Although perhaps slightly exaggerated, this scene did get me thinking. Age diversity in the workplace also means you need to provide people with a custom onboarding process.

While a baby boomer you just hired may come with a wealth of expertise in your area of business, he or she may have never worked with iOS or Google Hangouts before. Of course, this kind of stuff isn’t rocket science, but including it in your onboarding process will help to avoid awkward moments. 

5. Age diversity in the workplace makes us nicer people

Let’s face it. Many of us are a tad biased when it comes to people of a certain age. They’re less flexible, less motivated, too slow and, of course, they take more sick days. Millennials have their fair share of stereotypes to deal with too: they are lazy, unfocused, need constant validation and live on avocado toast.

Working side by side with people from different generations is a great way to prove ourselves wrong. And by extension have a positive effect on the way we see – and treat – people outside our workplace too.

On a Final Note

Research clearly demonstrates that age diversity can improve organizational performance. According to the SHRM Foundation, HR practices that improve the age diversity climate within an organization have the potential to further improve performance and lower employee turnover. Studies also find that the productivity of both older and younger workers is higher in companies with mixed-age work teams.

As the global workforce is aging and as we haven’t got the people – nor the skills – yet to fill the gap that retiring workers are leaving behind, age diversity in the workplace becomes more relevant now than ever before. Personally, I think this is a great opportunity for organizations to boost their employer brand, expand their customer demographics and – perhaps most importantly – increase employee satisfaction.

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