Baby Boomers Worry About Collegial Relationships at Work

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR September 2, 2008

Ther​e are “3 Rs” that worry Baby Boomers: redundancy, relevance and resentment, according to Age Lessons, a Chicago-based intergenerational consulting firm. Concerns about possible layoffs, the need to keep skills current and resentment from younger associates are keeping these workers up at night, the firm found in a recent study.

On Aug. 21, 2008, Age Lessons released the findings of 50 in-depth phone interviews with workers aged 50 and over that explored issues that had surfaced in the firm's earlier Ageism: Managing on the Bias research conducted by Harris Interactive.

"Older workers believe that younger associates drop them from critical informal communications networks … blocking access to important political and business developments," Laurel Kennedy, president of Age Lessons, said in the announcement of the results.

"Whether it's overt, or unintentional, the net effect is the same," said Kennedy. "Mature workers gradually get foreclosed from water cooler banter on-line and off, and shunted to the sidelines. Without access to emerging news in the workplace, mature workers find it difficult to make good strategic decisions and career moves."

Another key finding, she said, was referred to as “senior shutout,” in which companies close off career paths and training opportunities to mature workers, assuming that they are unwilling to accept a new challenge.

Respondents identified other issues they had observed at work. For example, when older colleagues spoke during company meetings, younger colleagues would yawn, avoid eye contact with the speaker, doodle or send text or instant messages under the table.

That’s why Kennedy encourages companies to:

  • Adopt age-neutral hiring and educational policies that look at the candidate pool irrespective of age.
  • Form intergenerational work teams to ensure cross-pollination across age groups.
  • Extend continuing and professional educational opportunities to all workers, regardless of age.
  • Provide awareness training about generational differences, as well as office and meeting etiquette.

She says older workers can reach out to younger counterparts by initiating social outings and learning to text or instant-message colleagues if that's the preferred communication method their colleagues use.

"Most Boomers intend to work into their seventies and want to make a meaningful contribution to their employers while staying intellectually stimulated and engaged," said Kennedy. "Age represents yet another rich source of diversity for companies seeking to leverage their investment in human capital."

Exclusion Creates Risk

There’s another good reason to pay attention to collegial relationships among individuals from different generations: Organizations that fail to do so might expose themselves to financial and other risks.

For example, on April 7, 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced the settlement of its age discrimination lawsuit against Lockheed Martin Global Telecommunications for $773,000 for a class of eight employees aged 47 to 65 who were fired during a reduction in force in October 2000. In fiscal year 2007, the EEOC received 19,103 age discrimination charge filings, a 15 percent increase from the prior year and the biggest annual increase in five years. Allegations of age bias account for 23 percent of the agency's private sector caseload.

Age discrimination claims often begin with ageist language used in the workplace, according to Bob McCann, an associate professor of management communication at the USC Marshall School of Business, who worked with Howard Giles of the University of California, Santa Barbara, researching the impact of ageist language in the workplace.

Age-related comments such as "the old woman," "that old goat," "too long on the job," "old and tired" and "a sleepy kind of guy with no pizzazz,” are just some of the hundreds of ageist comments McCann and Giles unearthed in their analysis of age-discrimination lawsuits.

For the plaintiff, the defendant's ageist comments typically are perceived as clear evidence of the company's discriminatory intent toward older workers. Defendants, by contrast, generally view these same ageist comments as "stray remarks" proving little other than that ageism is prevalent in society at large.

But the impact of such language can be felt throughout the workplace in many ways.

"Our research has clearly shown links between ageist language and reported health outcomes as broad as reduced life satisfaction, lowered self-esteem and even depression," McCann said in an April 2008 press release. "It is quite plausible that retirement decisions may be hastened and work satisfaction affected by intergenerational talk at work."

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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