Reinventing the Workplace: An Intergenerational Challenge

One of the most persistent and misguided assumptions about the relationship of younger and older workers is that they are adversaries – competing for the same jobs and incompatible in work habits. This presumption of intergenerational hostility ignores the productive synergy that happens when their skills and work styles mix and energy meets experience, technological fluency meets accumulated people skills, ambition meets not sweating the small stuff.

It also obscures an important issue that concerns both groups – making the workplace more responsive to the work/life balancing act that bedevils old and young alike, albeit in different ways.

Trying to manage a family while holding a job emerged as an issue back in the ‘70s. As women entered the workforce in waves, they were challenged by real and imagined conflicts over the two spheres of responsibility that they, unlike men at the time, were caught up in. By the end of the century, as more men were committed to shared parenting, they found themselves in the same no-win situation: The more engaged they become in their children’s lives, the more obstacles they encountered – from rigid hours to scorn from other men.

Today, most parents are on the same page, and they want to challenge the status quo by pushing for family-friendly practices such as flex-time and shared or part-time jobs. (There is a lot of pushing to do; we are still the only industrialized country that doesn’t provide such benefits as paid family leave or tax breaks for caregivers.)

Like those young parents, we of the “encore” generation are changing the rules of our stage of life. We need and want to work; we also want to devote time to outside relationships, like engaging with community and rebuilding family ties. We, too, face caregiving demands, from elderly parents or ailing spouses to adult children and grandchildren. We want to shape a workplace that fits with the other demands – and rewards – in our lives. Flexible hours and caregiving support would benefit us, too. As Boomers redefine retirement and working parents redefine family life, together, we can redefine the way we work.

Employers ought to take note. There is plenty in it for them, too. Because these human circumstances are not being recognized in the workplace, a lot of good work is not getting done and a lot of talent is being squandered. Lost is the contribution of those who are distracted by the stress of trying to balance it all and by those who don’t or can’t even present themselves for the tasks they have the experience, skill, and willingness to perform.

The two generations are becoming a critical mass that can challenge employers to reconsider policies and traditions that make it impossible for their employees to give their all – and then, go home to the rest of their lives.

Suzanne Braun Levine is an author, advocate and Encore.org board member; her recent e-books include “You Gotta Have Girlfriends” and “Can Men Have it All?”