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In May 2019, I was invited to participate in at National Academy of Sciences on a panel about Generational Issues at Work (“Trends in Workforce Management: Are Generational Labels Meaningful?”), along with experts from Pew Research, Deloitte, the CIA and major universities. One of our biggest discussion points was the inaccuracy of generational stereotypes.

The Mistake: Labeling your coworkers’ generations.

It’s become all too common in the workplace for generations to label each other according to our age ranges: Millennial, Gen Z, Boomer, Gen X…

The Mistaken Belief: Labels are helpful.

Because we’ve heard these labels many times, we think they’re real things.

“Oh, I know some Millennials!” or “My boss is a boomer!”

But is everyone in a generation the same? Of course not.

Let’s take this discussion to another diversity/inclusion issue just for comparison: Are all women or men the same?

Of course not.

Many people think generational labels are useful. But what if they’re causing more problems than they’re solving?

The Reality: Generational labels have a dark side.

Labels they divide us, and they keep your teams and work culture from working together being everything they can be.

People can project their frustration and anger onto these labels. More “us and them” divides are created, and we already have enough of those, don’t we?

When I keynote or do workshops on generational topics, I find that just bringing up generational labels can cause a lot of friction. There can be a lot of bottled up emotion centered around these labels, and there are better ways to address the issues.

The truth is, age group stereotypes are a form of ageism. We would never talk about racist or sexist stereotypes with fascination, so why does it make sense to do that with age groups?

It doesn’t.

The Solution: The Platinum Rule.

The golden rule says, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This is a flawed concept, because each of us wants slightly different things.

The platinum rule says, “Treat others the way THEY want to be treated.” This requires a bit more work, but it’s what we all really want.

  • Treat people as individuals. Treat them the way they want to be treated.
  • Talk to them. Listen to them. Engage them.
  • Be flexible with your policies and culture. 

And with everything you do, align on shared values and goals.

The Benefits: Productivity, Retention & Attraction.

When your culture is based on values and goals, and when everyone is open, communicative and works together, your productivity increases and so does retention.

With good inter-generational teamwork, your company becomes the kind of place more people want to work. Today’s low unemployment rates have created a Talent War where it’s hard to attract good talent, and it’s easy to lose it, so you need an attractive work culture to remain competitive, and an ageist culture just won’t do the trick.