Global Leadership Blog
Creating Global Mindset

Are You Too Old for the Global Workforce?

Imagine you get to select all new hires for a high-powered international team. From smart support staff to dynamic leaders, you have the opportunity to build a dream team that will operate across the globe.

How old are these ideal team members? Be honest with yourself.

You see, there’s a lot of talk these days on Millennials –how they behave in the workplace and how their Generation X and Baby Boomer bosses should handle them. I myself wrote a post on how Millennials differ across the globe. Yet there’s another side to the age coin and that’s how those Gen X and Boomer workers are regarded in the global business landscape.

There’s no denying that our workforce is getting older. People are retiring later and later – and the number of people over 60 is expected to hit 2 billion by 2050. For perspective, that number was 600 million in 2000. That’s a significant shift.

Now consider that “older” employees can be viewed differently from culture to culture – and may have varying expectations themselves. Let’s say you’re 28 and enjoy a friendly, relaxed relationship with your 52-year-old American boss – then you get promoted and begin reporting to a leader around the same age in Japan. Can you expect the same level of informality? As a seasoned executive with longevity in a global company, you might find yourself treated as a respected leader in France but seen as an out-of-touch dinosaur in Israel.

Specific cultural dynamics regarding age can impact your reputation and your performance – but you can learn how to foster positive relationships across the generations.

Sidestepping Stereotypes

You can probably name a few age stereotypes and biases off the top of your head. Many people believe that older workers aren’t as tech-savvy or innovative as younger workers, or that Millennials will exhibit entitled behavior, change jobs frequently and be social media and tech geniuses.

But experienced leaders know that every employee brings a unique set of skills and limitations to the table. Maybe it’s true that Gen X’ers were influenced by the technology boom and dotcom era, while Boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War and social movements of the 1960s – but so what? Key is that each employee’s unique skills and competencies are being leveraged for optimal company productivity and effectiveness.

For example, baby boomers are really comfortable and skilled with verbal communication, while Millennials know how to develop strong relationships over virtual platforms. Older employees bring rich experience and knowledge, and are loyal to their place of work. Younger employees bring enthusiasm for collaborative team environments and readily share best practices.

It’s also crucial to remember that our generational categories span years. A Gen X leader born in 1965 has probably been shaped by different experiences than their Gen X colleague born in 1977. And of course, influences can vary widely from culture to culture. A Canadian Baby Boomer may find a South African colleague the same age was molded by very different forces.

From Ageism to Achievement

Many of us confront ageism in the workplace eventually. One day we’re the company’s young rising star and then a few years pass and suddenly we’re competing for positions with candidates fifteen or twenty years our junior. This can feel especially unnerving in global business when we find ourselves subject to shifting cultural biases.

Obviously your experiences – whether you’re a professional of a certain age or a young worker wanting to work constructively across age differences — will vary depending on the industry, company and culture. But there are a few universal approaches that can help dissolve ageist barriers:

Focus on solving today’s pain points. Important if you’re a seasoned leader interviewing for new positions – or promoting your own relevance. Too often professionals will point to past achievements when trying to promote their worth. But focusing on the past can be a mistake in a company focused on the future. Instead, figure out the problem the company is trying to solve and prove that you can solve it. If you can demonstrate that value, you’ll leapfrog over a host of age-related biases across cultures.

Don’t fall back on assumptions as a crutch. If you’re dealing with significantly older or younger colleagues and staff, set aside generalizations. Yes, age differences can feel alienating in the workplace, especially across nations. Your older staff members might surprise you in their ability to learn new platforms and stay nimble, where your younger employees may show more consistency and loyalty than you assumed.

Do some research. Realize that colleagues with diverse cultural backgrounds may have experienced different cultural events and professional trends on their way up the ladder. Get to know their influences. Find out the local expectations and etiquette on working with people who are significantly older or younger than you.

Open a dialogue. Don’t shut out employees or leaders because of an age difference; keep the lines of communication open, find out how they want to be treated and honor those standards.

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that diversity in the workplace tends to foster innovation. The next time you interview candidates or meet new colleagues, make an effort to look past their birthdates and see the potential in front of you. Sometimes age really is just a number – and a diverse mix of ages in the workplace can drive the results and numbers that really matter.

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson

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