Managing age-diverse workers

People live longer than previous generations, and often in better health. Many want or need to work later in life. This means many small business owners are likely to lead and manage young workers, mature workers, and those in between.

It makes good business sense to employ people of a variety of ages — to reflect your customer base, to learn from each other, and to retain valued skills and knowledge of your business needs.

See the person, not their age

There are as many differences within generations as across generations. Think instead about a person’s potential and what they have to offer. People of all ages might:

  • be keen to learn and develop new skills
  • want to contribute to the workplace in different ways
  • look for a new job, including after a break from employment
  • look after others, eg young children or elderly whānau
  • want time out for work/life balance.

Think about each person’s personality, skillset, how they communicate with others. Reflect on your own personality, skills and communication style, and how these affect what you see (or don’t see) in others.

All employees benefit from continuing to learn. Talk with each of your people about how they prefer to learn new tasks or information. Do they prefer to learn by reading, or by trying something out? Watch a co-worker in action, or work on a stretch project with others? This is called their preferred learning style.

It’s also a good idea to ask about their aspirations. What do they want from work?

All ages value:

  • meaningful work
  • flexible working arrangements
  • learning opportunities to keep skills up to date
  • fair treatment. 

Workers of all ages feel more motivated and engaged if you ask for — and listen to — their ideas and opinions. This is especially important if something changes and they are directly affected. Explain the reason for any changes, whether it’s a new IT system, health and safety toolbox talk, or a restructure. If it’s an urgent change, explain the reason for the change and why it needs to change now.

Challenge stereotypes

Sometimes we know we stereotype certain types of people. Sometimes we don’t realise we’re doing it — this is called unconscious bias. Both can affect our behaviour and decisions.

You might catch yourself thinking older people aren’t tech savvy or assuming younger people know how to promote your business on social media. Look at the person and their skills, not stereotypes about their age group.

Your team might also be affected by stereotypes and unconscious biases — including about their generation. For example, anyone learning a new IT system will likely make a few mistakes at first. Worrying about stereotypes could stop them asking for help or admitting to mistakes. A mature worker might worry people will think “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. A younger worker might worry people will laugh at a “digital native” struggling with technology.

Help your team bust any age-related myths. Personality and preferred learning style play a bigger part than age. Young or older, some people embrace new challenges and others don’t.

Knowledge and expertise — the main predictors of job performance — keep increasing as we age.

Knowledge and expertise — the main predictors of job performance — keep increasing as we age.

Develop people's skills

Make on-the-job learning and skills development part of business as usual. Encourage all your employees to upskill and to help each other learn. One example is when something changes in your business. This could be a new skill, system, or way of working. Your people need to learn what, why and how.

Few people learn effectively if they just listen while someone talks at them. It might save you time in the short term, but will likely take longer to get everyone on board and up to speed.

Be prepared for questions. Allow time for problem-solving and drawing on past knowledge and experience.

It’s a good idea to use real-life situations to help people master new skills, systems or knowledge. Encourage your employees to share examples from their own work, eg a common task or a customer’s unusual request. Explore together how to solve problems or complete tasks.

Support people who take time to adjust to change. Also support anyone overly confident about a new skill or task — have they really grasped it? Examples include:

  • allow time to practice
  • arrange coaching with you or a co-worker
  • check in regularly
  • give feedback.

Experience vs fresh eyes

Also try pairing people up to learn from each other.

A buddy system works best when you pair people of different ages and experiences. They benefit from each other’s perspectives and knowledge. Try to avoid pairing people who might clash or annoy each other.

Not only will your workers learn more effectively, this approach benefits your business more widely. The combination of experience and fresh eyes can lead to:

  • stronger ideas or solutions
  • smoother processes
  • better working relationships.
With no compulsory retirement age, more and more people are working in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

With no compulsory retirement age, more and more people are working in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

This includes rejoining the workforce, staying with the same business, or seeking new roles.

Working conditions

Check your premises for ways to make it easier for all people to get around, do their work, and understand what’s required. This will also help keep your workplace safe and healthy. 

Workers of all ages benefit from:

  • plenty of light to work by
  • easy-access work stations
  • option to stand or sit
  • larger text in documents.

Making your workplace easier to enter and get around will also benefit any suppliers or customers who visit. They too are likely to be diverse.

Case study

Not ready to retire

When business dramatically slows at Harriet’s events company, she must make difficult decisions about her eight employees. Harriet cannot afford to keep everyone on the payroll.

Harriet begins a restructuring process and proposes cutting two full-time roles. During consultation, long-time employee Beth suggests she retires, as she’s now in her early 60s. This would leave Harriet without her trusted bookings manager. It’s a role Harriet needs to retain, and Beth is someone she and her staff are reluctant to lose.

Harriet invites Beth to a conversation to explore other options. Does she really want to stop work? Harriet listens as Beth talks about loving her job but feeling she should make way for her younger co-workers. Harriet asks if she’s thought about other options. Beth wonders about reducing her hours. If this happens, she wants to help train someone to fill in when she’s not at work.

When talking with other staff, Harriet learns most of her people want to change their hours. Some are also interested in taking on new responsibilities.

Harriet comes up with a new plan. She can keep all eight employees on reduced hours. Harriet also asks Beth to coach a co-worker keen to move into bookings.

Quiz: How flexible is your workplace really? 

Clear criteria, fair decisions

When deciding on learning opportunities or flexible work arrangements, check you are being fair about who gets these opportunities. Are these open to workers of all ages? Or, for example, do you mainly offer training to younger workers or prioritise flexible hours for people with small children?

It’s illegal to make employment decisions based on age, gender, ethnicity and other personal characteristics. Even if you don’t mean to treat people unfairly, sometimes hidden assumptions or stereotypes can affect your decisions. If an employee thinks they are missing out because of their age, they are entitled to make a complaint. You also risk missing out on good options or opportunities for your business.

The best way to make fair decisions is to be clear about your processes and practices — with yourself, and with your employees. Start by picking a common offering, eg flexible work requests, learning opportunities, rewards for good performance.

  • Think about what you offer  make brief notes, including which workers typically get it. Check for unconscious bias.
  • Reflect on how you decide — what needs to change to make it fairer or clearer? Unfair or unclear decision-making leads to problems with workplace culture.
  • Make those changes.
  • Talk openly about what’s available and how you decide — a team talk is a good option, but also give people a chance to speak just with you or a trusted colleague. Does everyone see the decision process as clear and fair?

Take flexible working as an example. Being fair doesn’t mean agreeing to every request (or refusing every request). It means helping your employees know what to include when applying, and carefully considering each request. Don’t decide based on why someone wants to work flexibly. Instead weigh up how it could work. Ask people to include details when applying. For example, how they will communicate with co-workers on different hours or locations.

Vote Form When working effectively together, a diverse group performs better than a group of similar people.
Think about how to make your business fair, accessible, and meaningful for employees of all ages, backgrounds and experiences.

Think about how to make your business fair, accessible, and meaningful for employees of all ages, backgrounds and experiences.

It’s good for your business, and your people will feel more motivated and engaged.

Common mistakes

  • Believing stereotypes — people of any age can be open to new experiences and challenges, just as people of any age can be reluctant to change. Do you fit every stereotype about your generation?
  • Assuming flexible work only appeals to younger people — workers of all ages might want to work flexibly. Make sure your decision processes are fair and clear.
  • Thinking only older workers make good coaches or mentors — instead pair younger and mature workers to learn from each other.
  • Failing to give employees time to ask questions and try out a new skill, system or piece of knowledge — people learn best when they play an active part. Embrace early mistakes as learning moments. Together work out how to solve problems.
  • Not making your workplace easy for everyone to get around and do their work — simple tweaks can often make a big difference to your team, plus customers and suppliers who visit your business.
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