As human resource professionals, we always strive to avoid stereotyping our staff by superficial characteristics, like age and race. But the deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Caroline Waters, has recently said that we should be treating disparate age groups differently. We’re simply not implementing the right strategy when it comes to age. In fact, we need a complete overhaul of the way we treat employees in an age-diverse workforce
‘Young’ and ‘mature’ employees, she says, are not mutually exclusive groups: instead, treating employees by the ‘life stage’ in which they find themselves is a much more sophisticated way to boost employee engagement and retention.
Life Stages in Human Resources
'Life stages' (quite a hazy term) can be defined as the deeply affecting processes that alter an adult’s outlook on life. Transitioning from one stage to the next is a time during which a person tends to reassess and re-balance their values and priorities, and emerges with a different attitude towards work. Since people grow and develop at different times, career planning naturally changes to follow suit.
Having a child, for example, is the kind of major event that might cause a person to enter a different life stage. A 25-year-old man who has just become a father – let’s call him Ben – will likely have a more mature outlook on life than an older man with perhaps less personal responsibilities.
To treat Ben the same as all other staff of a similar age would be misguided. He will likely benefit much more from being treated like Ibrahim, for example, the 40-something employee who has also just become a father.
What Younger Employees Want
Contrary to what teen idol Justin Bieber’s PR team might believe, young people can be a highly diverse bunch. It is often assumed that Gen X and millennial workers are all very similar – i.e. are in a period of experimentation, ambitious in their career goals, and open to new working methods – however, this is not the case for every individual.
Ben (the new father mentioned earlier) has a lot of new responsibilities and so may be hoping to find a more stable work commitment, rather than pursuing an aggressive, and perhaps riskier, career path.
In order to avoid homogenizing young people in the workplace:
- Ask more personal questions to young employees before pitching career opportunities or making structural changes.
- Embrace internal social networks to learn about the younger professionals in your organization.
What Older Employees Want
Older generations (those over the age of 45) can also feel frustrated when people make misguided assumptions: like being unfamiliar with digital tools, being more family orientated, and perhaps a little 'stuck in their ways'.
This group is again far from standardized. It encompasses employees from all walks of life who just happen to be over a certain age. In fact, a Simply Health report identifies at least five different types of employee within the older age group. These include: aspirers, stayers, downsizers, at risk and leavers.
What makes someone an 'aspirer' over a 'downsizer'? If you want to find out, use every resource at your disposal, including staff surveys, social networks and ad hoc analysis to ensure you recognize what life stage your older employees fit into.
Tips to Identify the Life Stages within Your Organization
Businesses are melting pots of diverse personalities and generations, all of which approach work in different ways. A good way to understand the working habits and priorities of different people is to use data to guide HR decisions (a concept originally pioneered by Google, known as 'people operations').
To better understand different life stages:
- Use employee satisfaction surveys, team assessments and social media to accurately target and identify the main issues affecting people within your organization
- Segment this data by similar responses, to see how their life stages relate, and understand what drives each group.
To really implement this methodology, companies must train managers to avoid stereotyping employees by age. Managers must be made aware of the more incremental stages that affect work priorities. This might involve defining the various life processes that can affect an individual’s attitude towards work. Allow managers to create a work environment where employees feel more valued and understood.
Ultimately, the HR team needs to grasp that there is no prescriptive method for engaging people in different life stages – of course, every employee is unique and grows at their own pace throughout their career. The main thing is simply that we recognize and appreciate how the different life stage groups think and operate.