That was one of the messages to come from an event in Sydney on Friday (18 October) by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), which examined the need to rethink how age is viewed in the workplace.
Professor Lucy Taksa, co-director of the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie Business School, gave an impassioned speech about how collective categorisation of people by age brackets — Baby Boomers, Millennials etc. — is having a damaging effect on the nation’s workplaces and overall economy.
“I want to question the popularity of this categorisation — I think it has quite negative implications for the workplace, and for society as well,” she said.
“In fact, it’s not always clear who belongs to these groups.”
Professor Taksa added that this segmentation of people based solely by age influences everything, from employment and career opportunities to how people relate with one another in the workplace.
Generational stereotyping limiting opportunities
Part of the problem, she suggested, is intergenerational bashing, with younger generations often blaming Baby Boomers for hoarding wealth and damaging the environment, while older generations often brand Millennials as lazy, lacking in loyalty and being driven by self-interest.
But these stereotypes, she said, overlook the many contributions made by individuals of all age groups, and simply group people together who have nothing in common other than the years in which they were born.
According to Professor Taksa, multiple studies around the world have found that most stereotypes of Millennials don’t stack up to reality. As an example, she looked at the common belief that Millennials are actively seeking out a portfolio career in lieu of full-time employment.
“The portfolio career and job-hopping may reflect more about — I think it does reflect more about — the labour market and job opportunities than the desires and the choices of those seeking employment,” she said.
The proliferation of the gig economy, which “is undertaken by younger and older workers alike”, is not only a search for flexibility in working hours and conditions, but “is really because they have no other options”.
“Yet we hear constantly, in meme-like fashion, that young people have a radically different attitude to work than their parents, and that they crave flexibility above all else.”
Definition of ‘older workers’ getting younger
At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Taksa said that employment conditions are increasingly driving down the age at which someone is deemed to be an “older worker”, which has implications not just for individuals and their employers, but the for the wider economy.
“For redundancy purposes, if an employee is 45, they are defined as an older worker,” she said as an example.
This has particular pertinence for a country such as Australia where overall population is ageing, and where more people are remaining in the workforce beyond the stipulated age of retirement by choice or due to financial constraints.
Employers should be embracing best of all ages
The academic suggested that Australian employers could be much richer culturally, and be more productive by harnessing skills, ideas and experience, if age barriers at both ends of the spectrum are broken down.
“I think the critical thing is about bringing people together cross-generationally so that we can learn,” Professor Taksa said.
“Those that are at the more mature end, they’ve got experience, they’ve got the organisational memory, they also know how to negotiate after years of experience.
“Whereas the younger people, they’ve got new ideas, they’re less risk-averse.”
She concluded: “We need to get over these categories and remove them from our lexicon, from our thinking, in order to enable people to work together more effectively and to identify what they share in common.”