“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 is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for 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?
As with any stereotypes, there might be a kernel of truth to saying, ‘Oh, millennials are like this and boomers are like this and Gen Z is like this.’ But there are so many problems when it comes to the generational thing. One is just the general problem of stereotypes in general, that they're exaggerated and overblown and relying on myths of any kind will hurt your operational and financial performance. There's a lack of ethics to it.
The idea behind generational brackets is at least when you are born shapes your formative memories, and 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 very little science actually bears that out. 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. 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.
As one counterexample, you can't statistically disentangle birth cohort from one's life stage, or from what's called period effects. If you get differences between, let's say, today's older and younger adults, you can only control for one of those things–life stage, birth cohort, and period— but not two of them to isolate one of those three things.
So that's one part to the answer. Maybe we shouldn't be thinking about generations, maybe we should think about life stage. I wholeheartedly support that. However, it's not like life stage per se is a panacea, because age in general is just really complicated. I love the spirit of your question because you're asking basically, ‘Are we oversimplifying differences based on blank—based on generation, based on life stage, based on chronological age?’ And my answer to that is absolutely yes. I’ve made the argument that 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.
Let’s say you are told, ‘Hey, there's this 62-year-old who's going to apply to your job.’ I think there's this latent assumption that because this person is 62, that we know everything about them. And my point is there's a lot of heterogeneity between 62-year-old worker A and 62-year-old worker B. I'm not saying it's the be all, end all, or that it's going to solve every problem, but the GATE thing helps by clarifying a bit that different 62-year-olds may identify as different generations. One might see themselves as a younger boomer, one might see themselves as a Gen Xer.
So even if there isn't a lot of veracity to the generational bracket things in reality, they certainly underlie perceptions of how you see the world. There could be differences in their life stage—that's the A for “age.” One might have more health problems than the other that might have them be at a later life stage. Or one might have more family obligations than the other—in some sense, being a parent or grandparent thrusts you in a different life stage than if you don't have that. You also have to ask yourself, how much have they been tenured with their current organization or their previous organization? Were they part of the old guard at their former organization or were they part of the new guard that shapes how you view your work? How much E for “experience” did they accumulate? How much skill and relevant experience have they accumulated throughout their career? Did they switch careers a bunch where maybe they had a lot of different skills, or were they in the same career for life where they accumulated a skillset?
To me, that's the way we should be looking at things. To me, it's not so much that we should be looking at life stage versus generation, although I would say if you had to choose between the two, there's more basis for life stage than there is for generation in terms of what objectively predicts things like work styles. But I think the broader answer to your question is that just it's not fair to anyone, nor is it good business practice, to slap a chronological age or to slap a generational label on someone, and to broad-brush an entire age bracket or generational bracket based on that alone. It just doesn't make scientific sense, it doesn't make business sense.
How does the GATE framework show up in the way work is done day to day?
GATE comes from reading a lot of work on what different segments of management and HR-based scholars and practitioners were saying about hiring older workers or accommodating a multi-generational workforce. What I noticed was a lot of people were talking about the same kinds of things, but from different angles. There are the generational people. There are the lifespan development people who are really interested in life stage kind of stuff.
There's a whole management sub-literature on organizational tenure and how that fosters unique divisions. And they argue from an HR perspective or a personnel-management perspective that tenure differences actually trump any other kind of demographic difference in the workplace in terms of fostering cohesion versus conflict, which I think is really fascinating. What that camp argues is that for all that we talk about things that are of course extremely important and timely, like race and gender and social class and these kinds of things, actually, in any workplace, how long you have been with your organization forms the strongest camps. In other words, the old guard versus the newcomers trumps a lot of that in terms of fostering these what they call workplace fault lines.
And then you have these experience-based folks, where indirectly people make the argument that you should hire older workers because they're experienced. My point is just because a worker is older doesn't necessarily mean that they are experienced. If they are forced to start a second career, if they want to start a second career, they might have some degree of experience in one domain. Some of that might translate to their new career, but it may not.
So my point is that age sounds really simple in the sense that it's a number that we all have, but it's actually really nuanced and multifaceted in a way that scholars haven't given enough credence to. And practitioners also. You're forced to make these really bottom-line decisions when you're choosing between different job candidates or how to structure your workplace in general, and my charge to folks is to not just look at when that person was born or when they got their college degree or whatever proxy you have for how old they are, but to really think critically about what is this person bringing to the table not based solely on their age alone. GATE helps force that issue to see, okay, is this person going to be a good fit for what we're trying to do here or not?
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, we do, but a mere 8% included age as part of that. To me, that's a form of age discrimination. It's almost like discrimination against age discrimination. It's this weird blind spot that we have to start with.
How does that manifest in the workplace? That is such a big-deal, loaded question. There are issues on both sides of the table here. 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. You ask HR professionals across the board, ‘Do you value your older workers?’ and they say, ‘Hell yeah. They are so reliable, they're so conscientious.’ They may not use this vocabulary, but effectively they say something about 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, and this isn't just a fluffy thing of, ‘Oh, the good old days.’ I mean actually understanding what makes your organization your organization to begin with. You lose that old guard, you lose a lot of that organizational memory.
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, roughly, has increased by something like 30 to 40%.
It's not a linear upward trend, but if you look from, let's say, the turn of the millennium to now, you'll see a pretty sharp increase, 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,’ and they were explicit about saying, ‘We need to recruit younger workers.’ Well, that didn't go so well because they got a lot of blowback from it. I believe there were internal messages that were leaked about referring to their older employees as ‘dinobabies.’ I don't even know what that means, but something along the lines of, ‘They're dinosaurs who aren't innovating enough and we need to get younger.’ It didn't go over very well.
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 typically think of work and workforce management. Once upon a time, it was a relatively neat track, with some exceptions: You get your career, you punch in and you punch out for a few decades, and then you retire around age 65 or maybe exactly at age 65, and then you 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 actually no research that shows that work performance tends to decline with age. There's really no statistical reason to believe that an older worker can't perform at a high level throughout their life, on average.
But what's happening is then it's creating this level of ambiguity where 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. It’s this mandatory succession policy. I actually did a lot of work on my dissertation on this idea of expecting the old guard to sort of step aside for the young one. Whether that's fair or not is debatable, 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.’
And I think that's really fascinating, because that's kind of underlying all of this ambiguity around when is it time to step aside, what is fair, what is not? Do we say that a 62-year-old, 64-year-old, 75-year-old can't do their job anymore? Is it fair to slap that chronological age on them and say they can't do their job? It's tough. And then meanwhile 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. Obviously, there are some exceptions to all these rules, but there's real value to be had there.
And on the younger side, you do have a growing lament from a younger generation that feels increasingly disenfranchised. Not necessarily directly by the older generation—I want to be clear, I don't think it's fair to pit generations against one another—but they look around and they see an older guard that's not stepping aside. They see an environment—and I'm talking primarily American based—but I've actually heard stories about this around the world—with a lack of stability, to say the least. I've taught undergrads and MBA students now for eight years, and for folks in that sort of Gen Z-slash-younger millennial demographic, it's really hard to be young these days. I'm not saying each younger generation didn't have their challenges being sent to wars and things like that, but there's something objectively harder about being young today, at least from an economic and social standpoint. There are so many statistics on this. The generational wealth gap is bigger than pretty much it's ever been. That chasm is growing. There's a political divide that is growing. People talk about recent elections and how those are referendums on growing divides based on things like race and social class or urban and rural, and all that’s totally valid, but it's alarming to me how much that growing chasm is actually age-based.
There's a statistic I cite a lot: With the Trump-Clinton election, if only voters under 30 voted, Hillary Clinton would've won every single state. If only voters over 65 voted, Trump would've won the vast majority of states in a landslide. That political divide based on age was not like this even four or five election cycles ago. Generations used to be like 2% apart in terms of whether you vote Republican or Democrat. That is growing. My point here is, right now, 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.
The problem with this growing chasm is, who's to say which side of the fence is right? On the older side, if you lose your job or get laid off, there's a really valid anxiety that you may not get a job again, at least for a long time, especially given that the pace of change is so rapid that this anxiety of getting cast aside is a legitimate concern. People are afraid to put their age or their birth year on their resume because they're worried about looking too old. People get cosmetic surgery so they don't look as old as they are. But on the other side of the equation, it's really, really hard to be young, really hard to afford to buy a house, really hard to start a family. Student debt in general is just out of sight. Being able to obtain the same quality of life, the same living standards as one's parents or grandparents' generation right now, is impossible on its current trajectory. I guess this is a little bit more of a policy thing, but I think it feeds into a lot of these concerns. It's so hard to get a job as an entry-level worker. You've seen the memes: ‘Looking for a 26-year-old with 30 years of experience.’ Getting a job as a tenure-track professor was literally a hundred to one odds. Even 10, 15, 20 years ago, it was not like that.
Everything is more competitive, and it just happens that being younger means that you're just starting out, and so the number of opportunities out there just seems diminished and overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. It's little wonder to me that there are alarmingly record-high rates of mental-health challenges that afflict today's younger generation, and it's not just that they're reporting more. Yes, it's more socially condoned to talk about mental-health issues, maybe more now than our parents or grandparents' generation, but I don't think it's only that. There's just a lack of stability in general, is sort of how I've been characterizing it lately, which makes it really daunting to be young in today's society and to try to make your way.
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, basically. It wasn't clear what was proper decorum or not 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.
There is this tendency for it to be really socially condoned to just be ‘Kids these days’ or ‘Okay, boomer.’ Insert any other social category and that would not fly. There's something about age, there's something about generation, where because it is so overlooked, because it is so under the radar, because only 8% of DEI efforts focus on it, for some reason we're like, ‘Okay, cool. By all means, completely dismiss an entire age demographic because you don't belong to them.’ It's just kind of bizarre. Age should foster the most perspective-taking, if you think about it, because it's the only universal social category. I'm a millennial. I'm never going to be a boomer, but I know one day I'm going to be older. Therefore, you would think I would want to seek that kind of perspective. On the flip side, every single older person literally knows exactly what it's like to be younger.
But there is this tendency for generations to discount one another. I have literally never met a single working professional who doesn't have some sort of story about some sort of generational conflict or disagreement. There's this tension between the older way of doing things and a new disruption way of doing things. So you get older generations dismissing the view of younger generations. 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 actually 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. It’s no less high in quality than that from someone older than you or the same age. Even though we have this intuition that advice is best given from someone older than you or the same age, it’s not true.
And it's not just about giving advice on new apps or whatever. It's like life advice. You can advise your parents basically as well as your parents could advise you. We have this idea that you need a certain level of experience, and I think that does dictate a certain type of holistic perspective, but don't discount the voice of the younger generation. Not only is it very empowering for them, but it's actually objectively very useful.
On the flip side, there is this tendency for junior workers to dismiss the so-called older guard as outdated, out of touch, not in step with current times. ‘There's a more efficient way to do things.’ ‘Why are we doing things in this older way?’ So it's equally important, in my opinion, for younger generations to understand truly how much they can learn from their older colleagues, especially when it comes to things like how to navigate the unwritten rules of your workplace. This goes back to that organizational memory concept I was talking about before, or how to get ahead in this career that you're ostensibly embarking on. They've literally done it before. How do you structure your career to set yourself up for success? I can only speak to my own field of academia, but I don't know a single person who hasn't benefited from the wisdom of their mentors, who are older, usually. But it's not just wisdom—it’s like literally, you can't get a job in academia without the support of your mentors. They have to write letters of recommendation for you. They have to go to bat for you. They have bigger networks that they can tap into in order to facilitate those kinds of connections. In pretty much any line of work, the more senior experienced folks are going to have those broader networks. They're typically going to hold higher power positions. They're going to have that pragmatic advice and experience that they can draw upon, that they can give to the younger generation.
There is recent research in my field of management showing that both parties, older and younger workers, feel more engaged and empowered at work if they engage in this mutually beneficial symbiosis where the older guard passes along their advice, their knowledge, and the younger guard eagerly eats up that knowledge. When you have those kinds of arrangements, both parties become more engaged at work, you have less turnover, you increase your performance. It's a win-win for all parties.
What are your thoughts on 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 another 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, right? 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. Ting studies this really interesting line of work about the surprising value of rediscovery. Rediscovering even 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. You forget stuff. You forget what it's like to be just out of college or in your early 20s and maybe not having family obligations yet. I think learning from your juniors is kind of a cool trip for anybody. It's cool to remember some of that stuff.
Going back to what you were saying earlier about the political divide, what would be your advice for workplaces trying to navigate differing expectations between older and younger workers about how involved organizations should become in societal issues?
I don't have a great answer for that. For all that I said about how the generational bracket stuff is a little overblown, there is something objectively true about how today's younger generation, people just starting out in their careers, care way more about socially conscious organizations. I think that is a generational shift of sorts, where prior younger generations at that same age did not prioritize that as much. Again, we want to be careful. It's not like every single Gen Zer is like this. Not everyone needs an organization that is socially conscious. But I would say in line with the same idea of having your younger employees’ voices be heard, if they vocalize that they really care about being—pick your social issue, being eco-responsible, socially conscious, progressive, whatever—then I would encourage organizations to give them that voice to begin with, and don't just discount it as, oh, ‘Kids these days, they're so naive, they don't know how the world works.’ Older generations have always dismissed kids these days as not really knowing what's going on. Even boomers were dismissed as out-of-touch hippies who didn't know how to work, and now it's millennials who don't know how to work hard and are buying avocado toast or whatever.
In terms of handling that, it's similar to the other things we talked about. Give your junior workers a voice. Listen to what they say. They are not only the potential future of your organization, but they are the future of our society, and if they unanimously or majority care about something, then chances are that thing is going to become part of the mainstream before you know it, and discounting it is a huge mistake in society or in your workplace.
Our conversation has focused a lot on younger workers versus older workers. What about those in the middle?
Middle age is statistically the most powerful, and they're usually highest up on the hierarchy. Most CEOs, most political leaders, tend to be around middle or late middle age, and then, with some exceptions, you're pressured to step aside. That's at least the traditional path.
But given the nature of age and hierarchy or age and status, middle-aged people oftentimes are caught in the middle trying to please both sides, and there's not a very clear playbook on how to do it. We want to be careful not to say being middle age is a privileged position, either. Because age is the universal social category, the risk for its prejudice or discrimination is—I don't want to say it's equal across the lifespan, but literally someone of any age can be discriminated against. The young, by the way, are not legally protected. The Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967, which was the major act that set legal precedent making age a protected category that you can't discriminate against, protects those 40 and over. Legally if you're 39, you don't have as much of a leg to stand on about age bias. And yet you could argue that younger generations are equally at risk. Anyway, point being, you could be 42, you'd be legally protected, but you could be definitely at risk for some of these things. It’s certainly not like they're just above the fray. I would say though, ironically, it is in line with Gen X feeling ignored and middle agers feeling like they're kind of invisible, in the sense that they’re sort of more of the ambiguous category. Whereas when you're young or older, it's a little more obvious.