Diversity tips for understanding age diversity

So. As you can see from my LinkedIn profile photo, I am no longer 30 and I have lived long enough now to understand some of the differences between age; and more importantly, the differences in how the same language is perceived by different age groups.

Yesterday, I had an experience with a neighbour which I think demonstrates some of the differences between my understanding of language and its meaning, what I would call normal social behaviour, and what someone younger might understand from the same words or phases. In the apartment block where I live, we have three garages under each apartment and a space where a car could pull up immediately in front of them. You would normally be able to park a second car in front of these garages if it weren’t for the fact that the actual driveway onto the street is just a single car width which means that if you are the garage on the side and a car parks in front of the garage in the middle, you can’t get your car out. The residents have agreed that we don’t park in front for this purpose, but occasionally someone does and if I am at home, I ask them to park really close to the middle garage door so I can get out. Not ideal, enough said. So yesterday, this young women (maybe late 20’s) and her boyfriend were doing stuff out the front of the garage and I poked my head out to ask if they were from the apartment directly above me which would mean that was their garage. I had seen other people parking there just recently and thought this young women must have moved out, as I had met her previously when she moved in about a year ago. I said hello but she didn’t look at me, instead she spoke directly at the man she was with, and said; “is there a problem here?”. I spoke to the man that she was with and she (without acknowledging me), said, ‘he’s just moving in, so you need to bear with us’. She no doubt thought that I was going to complain, but I told her about other people parking in that spot so I thought she had moved. After a little bit of discussion I was able to confirm that she was the person who belonged to that garage and went inside, but the encounter left me disturbed.

We often hear the same phase or word in a different context based on our own experience

For me, her question, “is there a problem here” seemed aggressive and dismissive. To her, it was no doubt standard terminology. I have noticed that this phase is used more often by Gen X and Y’s. For me, the approach would have been first to acknowledge me and say ‘hello’ with something like, “I’m Sarah from number 7 and we are just moving Paul in. Won’t be too long but just let me know if you need us to move the car”. Instead, I have come away from the experience feeling dismayed that this person is my neighbour and wondering what else will be in store for me with this person living upstairs from me.

Similarly, I was recently talking to someone at work about respect, saying that a management behaviour that we were discussing was fundamentally about respect. It became apparent that what I know as ‘respect’ was different to this person’s idea of respect. They saw any opinion about their behaviour or actions as a criticism and thought that they should be ‘repected’. In this case it was them as a Manager taking it on themselves to start tasking staff in another Manager’s area without any discussion with the staff members manager. Their idea was that I should be ‘respecting them’ by allowing them to do whatever they wanted to without any opinion to the contrary because they wanted to get something done and they thought it was perfectly ok to start tasking team members in another management team. I said that this was probably a management 101 concept even forgetting about the respect idea, and secretly wondered how we would manage to achieve any outputs in this type of management paradigm.

The different responses and beliefs of different age groups can impact management decisions

I’m not saying that we need to respect people simply because of their age, in fact, I think that you earn respect, it is not simply given because of your age or position. When I was young we were taught to respect our elders and I think (rightly or wrongly) this gave us some sort of measuring stick for behaviour. That is; there was this hierarchy of respect with people like bank managers, lawyers and teachers gaining an almost automatic respect because of their position in society. Conversely housewives and carers were not respected in the same way, but none the less were given a degree of respect by their children because of their age and their family role as carer. Of course there was also an intersection of the degree of respect you had in relation to your gender and race that moderated other peoples behaviour and in some cases, of course, blatant racism and sexism still prevailed then as it does today.

In my work I assess, and assist many organisations to develop their diversity strategies to better leverage performance in their organisations and one of the most common findings that I see is that age diversity is not understood, nor is a strategy implemented. Instead, most of the rhetoric is aimed at the needs of younger employee’s which is of course important but it is not diversity. It seems that much of the diversity strategy or approach for more mature employees is relegated to the assumption that they might be ‘carers’ and that’s as far as it goes.

What I am saying is that age diversity is about more than the need for organisational diversity programs to make sure that a carer program is provided for (often) mature age women to avail themselves of in order to provide care to ageing parents or spouses.

Using a broader brush for age diversity

In this article I have presented just a couple of examples of the way that language, context and age work to form completely different pictures and approaches to the same conversation. This provides an example of how diversity, if managed well, faciliates different approaches to the same problem. In the first example where I am speaking to the young woman about the car parking, her response in language, attitude and delivery would put off your mature age clients, whereas to someone her own age might be a none issue. For me, it would be enough to make me go to another provider because it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the client base and a lack of connection to other people which many older people think is really important customer service. Or rather, it used to be, but that is another discussion. Remember that when people like me started working in the early 1980’s, customer service was big business and we were all routinely trained in its application including ‘how’ we answered the phone. Much of this training has stayed with me, and no doubt is important to others my age, but it is less important to younger people.

When you are developing your diversity strategy broaden your brush for age diversity, its not all about flexibility for carers, or education and training. Look at common language used in your organisation. Is it really skewed to ‘hip, buzz words’, with the culture of the organisation being ‘young, energetic, a fast paced environment, etc’. You can surely hear the job ads whilst I am speaking, but who is likely to be your client? This is another area where more mature workers don’t fair well and many times I consult to organisations about the wording and placement of information in their job ads as they will screen out older people and it doesn’t go unnoticed when sometimes this is the intention. Its not that older people don’t have the skills, its that they may not present them in the same way and put the same emphasis on what a younger worker might think is more important.

Consider how teams are put together and how the dynamics play out when you are doing team activities or working through strategies and problem solving. Is it driven by an ideal of youth, i.e. focus on energy, coolness and speed with little personal connection or is there a balance? Maybe you don’t want a balance in your organisation, this is also something to consider.

During my assessment consulting work with the DPRF, one of the most consistent findings is the presence of bullying and harassment. It seems to be getting worse and more sophisticated in the way that it plays out. Sadly, much of this harassment is from young senior female managers targeting older subordinate women. It happens to men as well, but, in my experience plays out slightly differently. This trend is disturbing and, in my experience is increasing.

If you would like more information about how to devise a holistic diversity and performance strategy, please contact me at susanne.moore@ambidio.com.au or susanne.moore@gendereconomics.org


Job Hunting Tips For The Mature-Age Workerhttp://careerfaqs.com.auIf you are over 45 and suddenly find yourself made redundant or seeking a career change, the thought of having to hit the job trail and compete against people years younger than yourself can be downright scary.