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Lead Your Team Managing

Judging Employees By Age Could be Costly, Study Finds


It’s easy to assume that the gray-haired guy in the sweater vest might not be the best choice for heading up your social media department. But making assumptions about people based on their age might be keeping you from getting the most out of your workers.

Judging people based solely on their age is resulting in lost knowledge, higher turnover and other productivity-clogging problems, new research has found.

The study says firms often misfire when trying to mend generational divides, relying on broad stereotypes associated with Baby Boomers or Generation Xers.

“Our message is the problem isn’t that simple and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions,” said Aparna Joshi, a University of Illinois labor and employment relations professor who led the study. “Just as we don’t want to take simplistic approaches to race and gender issues, we shouldn’t automatically assume that a gray-haired man isn’t on Facebook or good at technology. Assumptions based solely on age can lead to some very faulty conclusions and missteps.”

She says an analysis of research dating back decades found that three primary factors could help breed generational factions in the workplace that can keep employees from interacting and sharing knowledge.

  • Age is one factor, but goes beyond broad labels such as Baby Boomers, which spans a nearly 20-year age range, according to the study. Scholars have found that within generations, people are further defined by significant events that occur on the path to adulthood, such as World War II, President Kennedy’s assassination or the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Those events leave a lasting impression that spawns generational subgroups, making broad characterizations of entire generations dicey at best.
  • Generational factions also can emerge based on when employees start work with a firm, similar to the lifelong bonds formed by soldiers during boot camp or deployments, the study found. Because those factions can include workers of all ages, the study says age-based solutions to unite those workers with colleagues are ill conceived.
  • Workers also can form factions based on their work duties, such as a top management team representing a generation of leaders who may be replaced by a new generation or a supervisor working with a subordinate who could ultimately take over his or her job. Those bonds also create multi-generational groups that defy age-based solutions, according to the study.

The bottom line is that knocking down walls that divide workers can pay off big for companies, Joshi said.

“I think the basic generational challenge lies in assumptions made about what each group - for instance, older generations consider younger generations too naive or the younger generations considers the other redundant,” Joshi told BusinessNewsDaily in an email. “Organizations have much to gain by simply recognizing that each generation represents a silo of knowledge, skills, and experiences that can potentially be transferred to the other.


Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.