NationSwell had the opportunity to interview Kane-Williams about why this moment is so pivotal for organizations striving towards equity and justice

Anthony Smith, VP of Published Content and Growth, NationSwell: Does the modern workplace have a generational equity problem?

Edna Kane-Williams, EVP and Chief Diversity Officer, AARP: There is a shift going on in the modern workplace, but I hate to label it as a problem — it is an opportunity. For the first time in history, we now have a five-generation workplace. We have our traditionalists or folks commonly known as the Silent Generation who were born in the ’40s, we have Baby Boomers who were born in the ’50s and early ’60s, we have generation X, we have Millennials, and we have Generation Z. A five-generation workplace can present challenges to employers and organizations, because it is a new phenomenon. Something new suggests the need for trainings, solutions, and approaches that workplaces have not used in the past.

NationSwell: What are some numbers, case studies, or examples that spell out that opportunity?

Kane-Williams: We learned in a survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that AARP participated in that 53% of employers do not include age as a factor in their diversity and inclusion policies. When thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, employers tend to focus on race, ethnicity, gender orientation, gender selection, sexual orientation, disability, and ability status, but they do not include age, even though 70% of the executives surveyed favored taking steps to promote unbiased recruitment practices. And when we talk about unbiased recruitment practices, certainly at AARP, we are focused on the older worker, but when you talk to Gen Z workers, they also face age-related challenges in the workplace. Two out of three executives surveyed said they would purposely design mixed-aged teams to leverage the advantages of both younger and older employees. 

People used to retire at 60, 62, 65 years old, but now they are working longer, both out of choice and because people live longer. This is especially true for folks who are less privileged and from marginalized populations — Black and Brown folks, in particular — because many of them do not have a choice about retirement because they do not have the retirement savings accounts and safety nets in place that they need. With us living longer — into our 80s, 90s, in some cases, 100s — many people cannot afford to leave the workforce at 65 years old and have a 35-year retirement. Meaning 35 years of no income, no wages. So, as workers age, we need to make sure they can fully participate in the workplace. Across the board, we have to make sure all workers feel the workplace accommodates their needs, regardless of their age.

NationSwell: What are some concrete steps that organizational leaders can take to make sure that this unprecedented five-generation workplace is inclusive for every type of worker — old, young, and in between?

Kane-Williams: Training. I do not think we can assume people are going to come to the table with the skills they need. For both managers and team members, we need special trainings to ensure we are accommodating to people of all ages so they can thrive in a five-generation workplace. To do this, we can take some cues from the diversity, equity, and inclusion process. For example, microaggressions — you hear that term often in trainings and it typically applies to situations that involve race and ethnicity — there are microaggressions around age, as well. I’m the mother of three millennials, and if you talk to them, they feel like millennials encounter microaggressions around their age all the time in the workplace. People from other generations will say millennials are entitled and they do not want to work hard and find an easy way out. My children are offended by these generalizations and comments.

Older populations, people in my age range, also face stereotypes such as, not understanding technology, not on social media, and slow to adapt to change. All those beliefs are mired, whether you are younger or older, in stereotypes that have no business in the workplace. So the biggest thing employers need to invest in for a five-generation workplace is: One, trainings and two, protections — as we say in the Living, Learning and Earning Longer (LLEL) initiative, everyone ages so workplaces need to make sure people can be reskilled and upskilled. 

NationSwell: How are workplaces getting age inclusion right?

Kane-Williams: The World Economic Forum, OECD, and AARP have partnered together for the LLEL initiative. Through LLEL, we have found the tremendous benefits of a multigenerational workforce as it strengthens companies’ resilience, increases productivity and GDP, and opens the doors for new markets and creativity. We also learned that a multigenerational workforce will raise capita by 19% over the next 3 decades speaking to the benefits of having Generation Z through the Silent Generation working side-by-side. 

Over 50% of companies surveyed by OECD did not include age in their DEI statements. For workplaces to get age inclusion right they should: include age in their DEI policies, use trainings and mentorship opportunities to ensure people understand each other’s strengths and challenges, and provide upskilling and reskilling opportunities for their workers.

NationSwell: What is your call to action for the people who will read this profile and see this conversation about all of the opportunities the five-generation workplace has to offer?

Kane-Williams: One call to action I already alluded to is to provide work opportunities for people to remain and grow on the job. Another is to ensure individuals remain employable throughout their lives through continued education and training. Third, is to enforce policies that prevent age discrimination and adopt age-inclusive policies. More and more companies are embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion; we need to ensure that age is a part of the DEI spectrum that companies’ policies address. Those are three key areas that AARP focuses on when we talk about creating opportunities for all five generations to work together and to grow together in the workplace. 

NationSwell: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to talk about?

Kane-Williams: At AARP, we focus on people ages 50 and older and often add “and their families” because we are committed to preventing age discrimination and preventing age stereotypes for all generations. We do not want generations competing with each other or over resources. Rather, AARP wants to take advantage of the extreme shifts we are experiencing in workplaces and workforces, the great resignation, and the great reshuffle and what the pandemic has meant in terms of working.

There is something extraordinary going on right now with intergenerational workforces and the workplace environment that we do not have a complete handle on yet, and it will compel all age groups and all interests to work collaboratively. It sounds ambitious but at AARP we want to lead the way on how five-generation workplaces can thrive.

Presented in partnership with AARP, a NationSwell Institutional Member.