“For the first time in history, five generations are colliding in the workplace,” Charter columnist S. Mitra Kalita observed recently. Plenty of ink has been spilled about the unique needs of each one, as well as ways in which they all might coexist. But Michael North, an assistant professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who studies multigenerational workforces, argues that truly understanding and optimizing intergenerational dynamics requires a deeper look at the social and economic forces shaping the work experience.
We spoke to North about the idea of “generational turn-taking,” how tenure influences workplace relationships, and the place of age-related bias in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Some people argue that thinking about generations in the workplace isn’t a useful construct, and that instead it’s helpful to think of workers by life stage. What’s your take on that?
Generations have a very intuitive appeal. It’s really appealing to be like, ‘Oh, look at the kids these days,’ or ‘Oh, look at what the boomers are doing,’ and to ascribe these personalities to different generational brackets. It’s the idea that whatever birth cohort you belong to, you’re going to be more similar to others in your same birth cohort in how you see the world, how you see your work, how you see your career, what your goals are at work. The problem is scientifically, there’s very little basis for saying that birth cohort is the deciding factor that yields variance in how different people see the world.
However, it’s not like life stage is a panacea, because age in general is just really complicated. Instead of focusing on chronological age or generation or anything like that as a factor that shapes differences in how people see their work, we should really be focusing on workers’ GATE, which is an acronym that stands for generation, age, tenure, and experience. There’s a whole management sub-literature on organizational tenure and how that fosters unique divisions. It argues that tenure differences actually trump any other kind of demographic difference in the workplace in terms of fostering cohesion versus conflict—that in any workplace, how long you have been with your organization forms the strongest camps.
Beyond hiring, how does age-related bias typically show up in the workplace?
First, there’s a meta-level answer. Several years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did this global CEO survey and they asked CEOs, does your company institute DEI initiatives? And 64% of them said yes, but a mere 8% included age as part of that. It’s almost like discrimination against age discrimination. It’s this weird blind spot that we have to start with.
The typical way people think about it, which is actually not the only way, is bias against older workers. I call this the older worker paradox. It’s perplexing. Older workers are really valued in the workplace for what scholars would call deep organizational memory. If you’re an organization, if you’re kicking out that old guard, you actually lose a lot of value that way. You lose part of your organization’s DNA. On the other hand, as a demographic, older workers are increasingly at risk for layoffs. They’re increasingly at risk for discrimination. The number of age-discrimination cases brought forth to the EEOC over the past 20 years has increased, and it’s only getting worse. IBM a year ago had this whole blowup where they were saying, ‘We need to get younger, because they were saying we’re not innovative enough.’ There were internal messages that were leaked referring to their older employees as ‘dinobabies.’
This kind of thing happens a lot, though, and it’s only going to keep happening, because there’s this inherent generational turn-taking element that has characterized how we think of work. Once upon a time, it was a relatively neat track, with some exceptions: You get your career, and then you retire and go off into the sunset and you make way for the younger generation. That traditional way of thinking is increasingly no longer the case, because more and more older workers don’t want to retire at age 65. They objectively have a lot to contribute. There’s really no statistical reason to believe that an older worker can’t perform at a high level throughout their life, on average.
So you’re getting cases like the IBM case, or the case of Target’s CEO. He’s in his mid sixties, and Target traditionally has had a policy of CEOs having to transition by the age of 65, but Target decided that this man did such a good job of shepherding the company through the pandemic when retail was under siege that he got a three-year extension, beyond age 65. Which was, for some folks, controversial. Some folks said, ‘Yeah, why not? Dude has earned it. He did a good job.’ Other folks said, ‘Wait, this isn’t fair for the younger generation who’s been waiting for their turn in the limelight.’ There’s all of this ambiguity around when is it time to step aside, what is fair, what is not? You have an older guard that is objectively more healthy and vibrant than ever, that can do their jobs really well for the most part.
And on the younger side, you have a growing lament from a younger generation that feels increasingly disenfranchised. It’s really hard to be young these days, at least from an economic and social standpoint. The generational wealth gap is bigger than pretty much it’s ever been. How old you are determines an alarming amount of how much wealth you have, how able you are to be a homeowner, how able you are to afford college, to start a family.
What are some ways in which organizations could incorporate age bias into the way they approach diversity, equity, and inclusion to bridge some of that intergenerational divide?
There’s a case that I wrote based on an interview that I conducted with someone who was a manager at a ‘big four’ firm. She was in her late 20s and she was managing people right out of college, and it was the summer of 2016, when Pokemon Go was a big craze. So she was taking her subordinates on a client recruitment trip, and the subordinates were playing Pokemon Go in the parking lot, which from her vantage point was not appropriate. From the subordinates’ vantage point, it was like, ‘What’s the big deal? We’re not in the office.’ It turned out they needed to have a cross-generational heart to heart to clarify misconceptions. It wasn’t clear what was proper decorum in a client parking lot. It might have seemed obvious to the older guard in this case, but it was clearly not obvious to the newcomers. The lesson sounds really simple, but if you want to try to ease the tension or reduce multi-generational bias, just try to have everyone in the room’s voice be heard equally.
Historically, age does tend to correlate with hierarchy in organizations. Junior folks oftentimes are dissuaded from speaking out of turn. So my response to that is, if you really want to ease the tension, give your junior folks the opportunity to offer feedback. I have done some research on this: The advice from folks younger than you is statistically no lower in quality, as rated by people completely blind to the age of the advice-giver, than that from someone older than you or the same age.
It sounds like you’re a fan of reverse-mentoring programs.
That advice-giving paper that I mentioned earlier is called ‘What Goes Down When Advice Goes Up,’ with my friend and collaborator Ting Zhang, who teaches at Harvard Business School. This came from conversations with a ‘big four’ firm that had instituted reverse mentoring. They were concerned that with their younger workers, there was too much turnover. They were wondering, how do we empower them? ‘Let’s have them teach us the latest apps,’ was basically how they framed it. I think that’s a good start, but what our paper shows is it’s not just limited to, how do you navigate TikTok? That’s great, but it’s more than that.
I study age and Ting studies the surprising value of being a novice—or put it another way, the surprising downsides of being an expert. When you become an expert at something, you kind of forget what it’s like to not be an expert. You get so ingrained in your world that you ironically narrow your perspective a little bit. Whereas when you’re just starting out, the questions you ask are more broad. Rediscovering your own past naivete is actually really valuable. You’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I used to think X, Y, and Z. I forgot that.’ So I think that this work comes from the same spirit as reverse mentoring. It’s not just learning TikTok, learning Instagram, how to curate your social media-feed. It’s more than that. I think learning from your juniors is kind of a cool trip for anybody.
Read a transcript of our conversation, including more on how the GATE framework shows up in practice and where middle-aged workers fit in.