So much of the news about the five-generational workplace focuses on conflict and misunderstanding—different expectations around work styles and feedback, power struggles between newer and more experienced colleagues, ageist stereotypes that limit opportunities for both young and old.

Younger employee leaning over desk of older employee, both smiling at each other

All that is real, but there’s another side to the story. On the professional side, age-diverse workforces can lead to smarter teams, better work products, and two-way mentoring that increases learning all around. On the personal side, relationships with older and younger people can make us feel happier, more socially connected, and more satisfied with our jobs. They can, as I can attest to from my own experiences, even lead to new thinking on career goals and priorities.

Ultimately, research suggests that generational differences have the potential to be a huge advantage at work, if handled with intentionality and thoughtfulness.

The benefits of age diversity at work

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A growing number of researchers and authors are normalizing the idea of generational differences as a plus, not a minus. Let’s take a look at a few advantages, one at a time.

Age-diverse teams can produce better results. Research consistently finds that teams that include gender and cultural diversity outperform teams without that kind of diversity. It’s easy to understand that people of different identities and backgrounds bring different perspectives, ideas, and ways to connect with customers, clients, or other audiences, and that diversity contributes to better outcomes. The same is increasingly being recognized around age diversity, as older and younger people often have different but complementary skills and ways of approaching problems.

Here’s one example: Young people in their 20s and 30s typically have a type of smarts researchers call “fluid intelligence,” which is the ability to analyze, innovate, and solve new problems independent of any knowledge from the past. People in midlife and beyond often have more “crystallized intelligence,” which encapsulates the knowledge, facts, and experience that we accumulate over time. It shows up as a greater ability to synthesize complex ideas and understand what they mean.

Teams able to draw on both fluid and crystallized intelligence have big advantages. Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, author of From Strength to Strength, summarizes it this way: “As a young adult, you can solve problems quickly; as you get older, you know which problems are worth solving.”

Age-diverse workplace friendships can also strengthen work performance by building social capital and defusing generational conflict.

Connecting with older colleagues can reduce ageism. Research suggests that frequent intergenerational contact can reduce age biases. “The more contact young people have with older adults, the less anxious they are about their own aging, and the less ageist they are,” notes one study. Some research finds that positive images of people on television and in the movies, media, and advertising can do the same. Both types of contact—the real-life ones and the ones we absorb through media—can shift stereotypes, and ultimately our behavior, around people who are older and younger.

Connecting across age can connect us along other lines of difference. Today’s younger population is much more diverse along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation than the older population. So age-diverse work teams are very likely to reflect society’s increasing diversity in all kinds of ways. The relationships that form across those differences can fight other biases, too.

Connecting across generations can alter our sense of purpose and role at work. It happened that way for me. When I was younger, I was obsessed with finding mentors. As a first-generation college student, I sought out college-educated people anywhere I could find them (only realizing later in life the volumes my own parents were able to teach me). Once I hit the workplace, I stalked women I admired who seemed to have the whole work/family/children thing all figured out. While I had friends and colleagues my own age, there was something special happening when older mentors became friends.

Then I hit my 40s and something shifted. My ambition for climbing started to wane and I began to feel twinges of looming irrelevance, wondering if “what got me here” would get me where I wanted to go next. That’s when I started looking for younger mentors and friends who saw the world in fresh ways and helped me feel up to date.

Misa, whom I met while volunteering, coached me on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Charlotte, a millennial with a startup focusing on cross-mentorship, showed me that younger people are essential to shifting the conversation around aging and ageism. Now, at 58, I’m going deep into a work partnership with Duncan, a 30-year-old colleague at CoGenerate, where we work. Together, we’re making presentations about working across the age divide and writing a blog series where we riff on all things age-related at work.

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While I’m still deeply committed to learning and growing my own skills at work, a lot of my satisfaction now comes from finding ways to share some of the power, access, and networks I’ve developed over decades of working. In recent years, I led a fellowship to support diverse thought leaders, leaned into mentoring roles (both formal and informal), and served on several nonprofit boards and advisory boards. At the same time, I’m trying to find more ways—like my project with Duncan—to partner and learn from younger colleagues who challenge my assumptions and keep me connected to emerging trends.

Tips for bridging age divides

How do we take advantage of these benefits and avoid the pitfalls of connecting across our age differences? Here’s what I’ve learned about leveraging age diversity for maximum impact and personal fulfillment, along with some recommendations for how to get more of it in your work and life.

Get proximate. It’s hard to practice being with older and younger people when you can’t find them. Even in workplaces with age diversity, we often gravitate to our age peers. As multigenerational work expert Megan Gerhardt writes in the Harvard Business Review:

Research indicates that younger individuals particularly prefer working with people in their age range. Older individuals also have reasons for not actively seeking age-diverse friendships at work. As seasoned workers climb the organizational hierarchy, their responsibilities and demands increase, limiting their time and interest in connecting with younger colleagues. These trends contribute to a natural age polarization within organizations.

To counter that likelihood, consider starting an intergenerational employee resource group (ERG) to bring people of different ages, life stages, and generations together.

Salesforce, for example, has an affinity group called “Genforce,” which sits alongside other groups working toward equality. Its goal is to build “a community dedicated to representing all generations in the workforce by combating age discrimination and connecting employee pathways across all ages.”

Bayer takes a similar approach with its business resource group, MERGE (Multigenerational Employee Resource Group Exchange), which seeks to break down stereotypes about the generations and foster multigenerational workplace practices. Bayer has also created mutual mentorship programs, youth advisory boards, and an internship program for employees over 40.

Johnson and Johnson is also quite public about its multigenerational ERG, Generation NOW. And they’ve created an internal podcast to lift up stories and perspectives of employees of different generations. 

Find an older or younger collaborator. Our team is all-in on this front, adopting a co-leadership model with two co-CEOs of different generations sharing the top job. One of the programs we work with, United Way of Santa Barbara, takes a similar tack. They intentionally deploy age-diverse pairs to reach out to people living on the streets. The goal: to maximize the chances that one of them will connect with people who are experiencing homelessness.

If you want an entertaining reminder of how powerful these collaborations can be, dig into the streaming series Hacks, which portrays the partnership between an older, on-the-outs comedian and her younger, on-the-rise writer. It shows what’s possible when people of different life and career stages come together to make each other better.

Honor age differences, then find the commonalities. Recognize that the year we were born influences many things about how we see the world, what technology and social influences are normal to us, and who is in our peer group. When we connect over common passions or projects, we can learn from each other’s differences in ways that help us do better at work and life.

Venprendedoras is an incubator for Latina entrepreneurs of all ages. This TikTok about two of its members nails this dynamic perfectly. They talk about what they learn from each other, with the younger seeing how older women make necessary pivots to sustain their businesses, and the older relying on the younger to stay plugged into new trends and learn how to communicate with new audiences.

Collect older and younger friends outside of work. For nearly 20 years, my mother and I hosted an intergenerational clothing swap, which became a hotbed of new friendships and job leads. If you lead a committee, a community volunteer project, or a book club or hiking group, consider teaming up with someone 20 years older or younger. You’ll feel less isolated, have access to new perspectives and lived experiences, and expand your personal and professional network.

Aspire to be a “perennial.” In 2016, Gina Pell coined the term “perennial” as a way to describe people who defy generational expectations, who are “ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages.”

Think about Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, who has been at the helm discovering young comedians for close to 40 years, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is as well-known for his post-basketball life as an actor, activist, and author. Older perennials find ways to project that they’re young at heart. Younger ones tend to be old souls, like Lady Gaga or Brandi Carlile, seeking out partnerships and collaborations with older people.

Share your power. When it comes to age difference, one of the elephants in the room is the extreme power imbalance in most workplaces, where power is concentrated in experienced, older people in top jobs. (That said, in some environments like the tech sector, power is concentrated among a group of younger people, and older people aren’t even in the room.)

I learned about the need to equalize power the hard way. A few months back, Duncan and I were debriefing after a joint presentation. “If people are going to see us as peers,” he said, “we need to design our talk more equally. Otherwise, people will assume that you’ve got the power.” He suggested that he have a more prominent role opening and closing the talk. He was right. I was embarrassed not to have seen this inequitable airtime issue earlier, and we fixed it.

I’m constantly asking myself, and my colleagues, how to shake things up to tap the best of our increasingly multigenerational workforce. How might you partner with older and younger colleagues to enhance your work professionally and in your community? How might you create more intergenerational moments in your life?

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