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date: 19 November 2017

Aging and Organizational Communication

Summary and Keywords

In the last 20 years or so, the field of intergenerational communication as seen from an intergroup perspective has evolved to encompass a wide range of social, cultural, and relational contexts. Research into communication and age in organizations represents one particularly exciting and rapidly changing area of investigation within the intergenerational communication domain. The workplace, by its very nature, is rich with intergroup dynamics, with age in/out group distinctions being but one of many intergroup characterizations. Stereotypical age expectations—by management and coworkers alike—can serve as powerful harbingers to behavioral outcomes such as ageist communication, considerations of (early) retirement and reduced and/or lost training among older workers, and even reduced intentions among young individuals to take up careers involving older people. Ageist behaviors (including communication) are also at the core of many types of discriminatory practices toward older (and sometimes younger) workers. Age diversity strategies, which include intergenerational contact programs, cross-generational mentoring, age diverse teams, and the use of positive symbols of older age, are becoming more common in organizations.

Keywords: ageism, intergenerational, age groups, stereotypes, contact, age discrimination, older workers, technology, training, intergroup communication

Introduction

Communication and Age in Organizations

By 2050, the number of people aged 60 years and above is projected to reach 2 billion (from close to 700 million today). In other words, roughly 1 in 5 people around the world will be 60 years or older in just over three decades (World Health Organization, 2014). While 2050 may feel distant, the rate of population aging is already well underway and affecting many facets of public life. Most Western countries are currently experiencing significantly longer life expectancies and higher health-care costs among older people (e.g., an estimated 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s, a number that could reach as high as 16 million by 2025; alz.org, 2017). There are major organizational and economic implications from these changes. In countries such as the United States, China, and especially Japan (who currently possesses the world’s largest per capita elderly population at 26% over age 65; World Bank, 2016) declining birth rates among young people strongly suggest that future labor shortages will result from shifts in age demography. In the United States, labor projection studies demonstrate that labor force participation will grow more rapidly among older workers than among younger workers, and that there may be inadequate numbers of younger people in the labor force to pay the rapidly mounting social security and health-care costs of the aging populace (United States Department of Labor, 2013). Many nations are already actively seeking solutions (e.g., older worker retraining in new technologies, etc.) to find a long-term means to support their booming aging populations. For “younger” older workers (e.g., those in their 50s and 60s) who are facing immediate displacement by technology, automation, outsourcing, and “lower cost” younger workers, solutions such as job retraining may also offer some short-term relief.

From the labor force projections cited above, it is more than reasonable to suggest that the workplace will continue to act as a focal point for intergenerational interaction. While the relentless pace of technological change will surely transform many aspects of tomorrow’s organizations, one core certainty remains. This is that communication, whether group, mediated, interpersonal, or other, will remain at the center of how we view, interact with, and relate to those of different ages at work. The more that we can understand how individuals of different generations communicate (and perceive their communication) with each other, the better poised we are to craft solutions for the cross-generational labor challenges and opportunities of now and of the future.

As we reflect on the innumerable cases where we interact with workers of different ages, communication is at the center of much of this interaction. For a Hollywood take on the issue of age diversity in the technology world, one may turn to the 2015 movie The Intern, where Robert DeNiro plays the 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker who becomes a “senior intern” at an online fashion site. This film vividly highlights (in an admittedly dramatized manner) many of the age-based issues in communication that workers of different ages may encounter as generations interact at work. For example, the Robert DeNiro character is differentiated from his younger work colleagues in his attire, language choices, work hours, and (lack of) familiarity with computer technology, but is also respected for his wisdom and reliability. While a dramatization, the film illustrates some of the age-based intergroup differences in organizations.

The field of intergenerational communication—as seen from an intergroup perspective—is rich and varied (e.g., Harwood, Giles, & Ryan, 1995). Since this Harwood et al. (1995) article, which was arguably the first coherent intergroup approach to intergenerational communication, scholars have examined contexts as diverse as the legal, political, and organizational implications of communication with older individuals, physician and pharmacist communication with older patients, intergenerational contact, cross-cultural intergenerational communication perceptions, age stereotypes, and media portrayals of older people, to name but a few (for review, see Harwood, 2007; Nussbaum & Coupland, 2004; Williams & Nussbaum, 2001). While each of the above research contexts could stand alone as an encyclopedia chapter, the organizational context was selected largely due to author interest and expertise in the area (also see this encyclopedia’s chapter on communication, aging, and culture by McCann and theoretical considerations of communication and aging by Hummert). The current chapter begins with a discussion of age operationalization, and then examines the role of ageism and communication in organizations by highlighting research topics such as the following:

  • age boundaries/age group categories

  • age group stereotypes in general and in organizations

  • age discrimination

  • workplace age diversity communication strategies

  • communication technology and training

Age Boundaries/Age Group Categories

The workplace, by its very nature, is rich with intergroup dynamics, with age in/out group distinctions being but one of many intergroup characterizations. For example, social categories such as rank, gender, ethnicity, teams, and age can all influence communication between organizational members and their identity formation processes (for review, see Hogg & Terry, 2000; Woo & Myers, 2016). Generally speaking, most intergenerational research defines young adults as those aged roughly between 17–30 (McCann, Cargile, Giles, & Cuong, 2004), and 17–35 (Noels, Giles, Cai, & Turay, 1999), and older adults as aged 65 and above (Giles, Ryan, & Anas, 2008), though there are exceptions (Williams & Garrett, 2002). When considering age in organizational contexts, the term “older worker” is commonly used, though the research operationalization of “older worker” is often inconsistent with the age categories for an “older person” as described above. Several factors account for these discrepancies, such as legal considerations (i.e., age discrimination laws; McCann & Giles, 2002), retirement ages (Forteza & Prieto, 1994), the nature/demands of work itself (Warr, 1994), and occupational stereotypes, where particular jobs (e.g., receptionist) are perceived as being more appropriate for individuals in their 20s than are other jobs (e.g., physician), which are seen as more appropriate for those in their 40s through 60s (Gordon & Arvey, 1986; also see Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007) for an excellent review of age bias issues in organizations).

While there is no real consensus on what it means to be a young(er)/older worker, there are age operationalization patterns that emerge in the organizational, gerontological, and communication literatures. A young worker is typically defined as an employee somewhere between 24 and 34 years of age (Finkelstein, Burke, & Raju, 1995), though there is variation among studies as young as age 18 and as old as the mid-30s (ages 18–25; Moline et al., 1992; ages 28–35; Streufert, Pogash, Piasecki, & Post, 1990). Older workers are commonly defined as individuals 50 years or above (e.g., AARP, 1989; McCann & Giles, 2007), though other studies utilize 55 years of age or more (e.g., Munnell, Sass, & Soto, 2006). Interestingly, U.S. law (for purposes of age discrimination) defines an older worker as any person over 40, though age discrimination legislation diverges culturally (McCann, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c).

Age Stereotypes

Age Stereotypes in Society

Our communicative behaviors are, to a degree, fueled by social stereotypes (Hamilton, Gibbons, Stroessner, & Sherman, 1992). Although stereotypes can be a helpful strategy for efficiently processing and retrieving information (Hamilton & Trolier, 1986), they too can be misleading and lead to rigid perceptions of outgroup members (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). In the age domain, early age stereotype research (i.e., research from the 1980s and early 1990s) portrayed elderly people (as described by young people) as being nagging, irritable, decrepit, cranky, weak, feebleminded, verbose, and cognitively deficient (Braithwaite, 1986; Nuessel, 1982), asexual, impotent, useless, and ugly (Palmore, 1999), and miserable and unsatisfied with their lives (Palmore, 1988). As age stereotype research evolved, scholars later established the coexistence of positive age stereotypes, as well as various subtypes of positive and negative age stereotypes (Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, & Strahm, 1994). In more recent years, psychologists have moved toward experimental and quasi-experimental research into the content and dimensionality (e.g., memory performance, physical strength) of age stereotypes (Kornadt & Rothermund, 2011) and the behavioral and psychological effects of age stereotypes on older individuals (for review, see Hummert, 2015).

Theoretical frameworks including the stereotype activation model (e.g., Hummert, 1994) and the communicative predicament of aging model (CPA; e.g., Ryan, Giles, Bartolucci, & Henwood, 1986) highlight the role of positive and negative stereotypes in guiding actual communicative behaviors to older adults (Hummert, Garstka, Ryan, & Bonnesen, 2004). For example, research supporting the CPA model has shown that the more negative views one has of older people, the more likely this would translate into patronizing behavior toward them (Hummert & Ryan, 1996). Additionally, other investigations have revealed evidence of positive and negative stereotypes and associated traits of elderly people through research using trait sorting tasks and experimental manipulations (Hummert et al., 1994). A range of communicative outcomes are related to old-age stereotypes, with Hummert’s (1994) stereotype activation model addressing (among other issues) how initial activation of negative sub-stereotypes about an elderly person in an intergenerational interaction could lead to problematic communication. Research reports that the more that young adults stereotype older adults as benevolent and personally vital, the less likely they are to report avoiding communication with them (McCann, Dailey, Giles, & Ota, 2005).

Age Stereotypes in Organizations

In organizations, older and younger workers are perceived differentially. Older worker stereotypes generally are negatively valenced (e.g., older workers as slower on job tasks), while younger worker stereotypes tend to be comparatively more positive (e.g., younger workers as more prepared to take on the physical and mental demands and difficulties of the workplace). Still, there are several exceptions to these findings (e.g., older workers as offering more stability, wisdom, and loyalty to the organization). Age workplace stereotypes have also been found to vary by age of the rater, type of the profession of the worker being rated, and (as was descried earlier) if the job in question is perceived to be a “young person’s job” (e.g., game programmer) or an “older person’s job” (physician). Along these lines, age stereotypes are particularly strong in certain industries such as retail, finance, and IT/computing (Arrowsmith & McGoldrick, 1996; Perry & Finkelstein, 1999). Broadly speaking, “stereotype types” of older and younger workers include the following (for an extensive review, see Posthuma & Campion, 2009):

  • Memory and Ability to Learn (i.e., older workers make more mental mistakes, are not as sharp, and have poorer memory skills).

  • Productivity/Performance (i.e., older workers work more slowly and are less productive).

  • Flexibility (i.e., older workers are overly cautious in their work and lack flexibility).

  • Technology (i.e., older workers are slower to adapt to new technology, are not aware of technological advances, and are more fearful of new technology).

  • Physical (i.e., older workers miss more work and are physically weaker).

  • Loyalty (i.e., older workers are more loyal to the organization, are more committed to work, change jobs less often, and have a better attitude toward work).

Age Stereotypes in Organizations: Cross-Cultural Considerations

Age group stereotypes also vary cross-culturally (Cuddy, Norton, & Fiske, 2005; Harwood et al., 1996). While a wide body of research has explored generalized age group stereotype variations across a range of cultures, minimal research has addressed the matter of age stereotypes and culture in organizations (see, however, a study conducted in Hong Kong by Chiu, Chan, Snape, & Redman, 2001). In their Journal of Management review article synthesizing findings from over 100 research articles and book chapters dealing with workplace age stereotypes, Posthuma and Campion (2009) comment on the paucity of such research, and make a specific call for national cultural research that examines how age stereotypes differ across national cultures. Moreover, the authors argue for cultural research by stating that “future research can be aligned with the growth of international business and the need for effective cross-cultural management expertise” (p. 179).

Heeding this call, McCann and Keaton (2013) compared young Thai and American workers’ perceptions of age stereotypes of older and same-age younger workers. In this study, younger Thai workers (as compared to younger American workers) agreed more with negative stereotype items that older workers are slower to adapt to new technology, are more fearful of new technology, make more mental mistakes, and are less flexible at work. However, younger Thai workers also agreed more with positive stereotype items that older workers are absent less, have a better attitude toward work, and have a higher level of commitment to the organization than younger workers. Invoking an “exacerbated generation gap argument,” McCann & Keaton posit that due to the extremely fast pace of urbanization, industrialization, digitalization, and Westernization in Thai society, young Thai workers may see older workers in an enhanced age stereotypical light. In other words, the young Thai workers may accentuate traditional positive older person stereotypes, but also see older Thais as less prepared to cope with the changes of the new digitally connected world.

In conclusion, research from varied cultural quarters paints a picture whereby individuals have been found to hold negative stereotypes about older workers. Although these stereotypes may be subtle or unconscious, they do affect how older workers are perceived in organizations. One result can be age-based discrimination against older workers. This discrimination can take many forms such as not hiring older workers, not selecting older workers for training, or targeting older workers for layoffs. This brings us to the next section of this chapter, which is where we explore the interplay between communication and age discrimination in the workplace.

Age Discrimination

Ageist Communication

An intergroup perspective has been utilized as a framework for many studies of communication between members of different age groups (Harwood & Giles, 2005; Harwood, Giles, & Ryan, 1995). For example, social identity theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) posits that individuals favor their own ingroups over outgroups, while communication accommodation theory (CAT) directly examines the manner in which individuals use language in intergroup encounters. In the age realm, both theories predict that people of different generations communicate in ways that are biased in favor of their own age group and not the other age group. A wide range of research supports this assertion, as young adults report that their intergenerational conversations are more dissatisfying and less positive than their intragenerational encounters. Specifically, people aged 65 and older are seen as more nonaccommodating and less accommodating than young people, though they are afforded more respect (and are avoided more) than are same-age group peers (e.g., Giles, McCann, Ota, & Noels, 2002). In addition, younger people have been found to avoid communication with those in other age groups (e.g., avoid topics, bite one’s tongue; Ota, McCann, & Honeycutt, 2012; for review, see Giles et al., 2002; also see the Communication, Aging, and Culture chapter in this encyclopedia by McCann).

A staircase pattern, which illustrates the way communication becomes more difficult as the target of communication “ages,” has emerged in the communication and age literature. This pattern holds for a wide variety of variables, and across many cultures, even when middle-aged adults are included as a third target age group of evaluation (e.g., Giles, Hajek, Stoitsova, & Choi, 2010; Giles, Makoni, & Dailey, 2005). Broadly speaking, young adults feel the least respect obligation and avoidance in their communication with same-age group young adults, followed by middle-aged and older adults, in that order. Findings consistent with a staircase pattern also hold for respect norms (e.g., politeness), and deference norms (e.g., should obey); McCann et al. (2005).

Ageist Communication and Age Discrimination

Stereotypical age expectations by management (as well as by coworkers and staff) can serve as powerful harbingers to behavioral outcomes including ageist communication, workplace bullying, hostile discourse at work, considerations of (early) retirement, work termination, and reduced and/or lost training opportunities. Ageist behaviors (including communication) are often at the heart of discriminatory practices toward older (and occasionally younger) workers as well (Finkelstein et al., 1995).

The magnitude of the age discrimination problem in the United States is underscored by statistics that reveal that on average, more than 22,000 age discrimination cases per year were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) between 2010 and 2015 (EEOC, 2016). In the United States, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 forms the basis of the legal protection of older workers. The ADEA is designed to protect individuals older than 40 years of age from employment discrimination based on age. The ADEA was later amended in 1974 to include coverage of government employees, and then amended again in 1978 to abolish mandatory retirement for federal employees. In general terms, under the ADEA, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person because of his or her age with respect to any terms, conditions, or privileges of employment—including, but not limited to, promotion, firing, hiring, layoff, compensation, job assignments, training, and benefits. ADEA protection does not apply to elected officials or independent contractors, and excludes those who work in companies with less than 20 employees.

There are a few key provisions of the ADEA that are especially relevant to communication scholars. First, the ADEA deems it unlawful to include age preferences or specifications in job advertisements. Employment ads with language such as “applicants under 40” are thus unlawful under the ADEA. Second, the ADEA holds that it is unlawful for apprenticeship programs to discriminate on the basis of a person’s age. Under this provision, internship programs, which “older interns” may increasingly rely upon to train themselves (e.g., in new software and technology), must be open to older individuals. Finally, the ADEA stipulates that all requests for age information during a job application procedure must be for lawful purposes only. Although there is no law that prohibits an employer from asking for one’s date of birth from a job applicant or employee, it is how the employer uses such information that is important (e.g., an employer cannot use a person’s date of birth to make employment or employment-related decisions). In a September 2016 move by California Governor Jerry Brown, and hailed by SAG-AFTRA as a victory for older workers, Governor Brown signed a bill that would require IMDb Pro to remove the ages of actors and others listed on the IMDb Pro website if asked by them to do so. It is expected that this bill will face a First Amendment challenge.

Proving age discrimination can be difficult. For instance, it is quite uncommon for interviewers to use overt, direct language in job interviews as they know that this language may lead to litigation. According to Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation, “It’s so difficult to prove age discrimination that employers are emboldened. They think they can get away with it” (Fleck, 2014). Covert language about age, or as many attorneys refer to as “ageist code words,” are common in workplace (and especially interview and recruitment) scenarios (Coulson, 2012). While ageist language such as “old fart” or “ancient” are fairly straightforward examples of what might be used as direct evidence of age discrimination, most language use in age discrimination cases tends to be of the indirect evidence variety. Additionally, the goalposts (as set by the courts) of what language constitutes direct evidence of age discrimination and what does not are constantly changing. For example, language such as “new blood” and “not a proper fit for the environment” have recently been used as code word proxies for “old” in age discrimination lawsuits (for a detailed discussion of how to prove age discrimination under the ADEA, see McCann & Giles, 2006).

A content analysis on age discrimination lawsuits over a two-decade period revealed that ageist communication played (and continues to play) a central role in a significant percentage of the ADEA cases brought before the courts (McCann & Giles, 2006). For the plaintiff (employee), the defendant’s ageist comments normally are perceived as clear evidence of discriminatory attitudes on the company’s behalf, while for the defendant (employer), these same ageist comments are often viewed as proving little except that ageism is prevalent in society-at-large. Ageist language such as “the old woman,” “that old goat,” and “too long on the job” have been successfully offered as evidence of the employer’s intent to discriminate, while equally stark language such as “an old, fat, baldheaded man,” “a tough old fart” have not. Several factors are considered when attempting to prove age discrimination, not the least of which is that the plaintiff must generally prove that it was the decision maker who uttered the remarks, and that the ageist remarks were related to the employment decision in question. Nevertheless, in spite of the complexity in establishing proof of age discrimination, ageist language still plays an important role in many age discrimination cases.

In their content analysis, McCann and Giles (2006) grouped ageist language in lawsuits into categories including “young blood” remarks (we need young blood around here; let’s make room for some MBAs; let’s bring in the young guns), “old” remarks (he’s old as dirt; he’s a sleepy kind of guy with no pizzazz; he’s someone who sweated like an old man; he’s old news; they are alte cockers—“old fogies” in Yiddish), “make way for youth” comments (they need to move aside for the younger professors), “new technology” remarks (he’s not a cultural fit [at Goggle]; he wasn’t able to grasp the new computer system) and “sexism and ageism” remarks (we need a young and sexy saleswoman; [these] waitresses were getting too old to work at [the Vanguard] and don’t look good anymore).

As age discrimination laws are adopted by greater numbers of countries around the world (for a cross-cultural review, see McCann, 2012), an increasing number of older workers are (to some degree) being offered improved protection. Still, many of the ageist and discriminatory behaviors that we see in the workplace are subtle and deeply ingrained in the practices, policies, and (communicative) cultures of the organizations. Legislation alone cannot be expected to change peoples’ ingrained perceptions regarding older workers, but regulation can act as a strong catalyst toward change. Age discrimination laws are only as good as the systems and policies that support them, and these systems and policies originate from society’s desire to reconsider and alter the attitudes about older individuals in and out of work.

Looking forward, workplace age stereotyping and age discrimination scholarship continues to evolve as newer and more sophisticated research designs and research questions emerge (see Posthuma, Wagstaff, & Campion, 2012). The same can be said for communication research in the age discrimination sphere. As the legal landscape itself changes both in the United States and across the globe, it is plausible that we will see an explosion of research in the communication, age, and discrimination sphere. Equally exciting for researchers, however, are the solutions and interventions that help combat many of the age biases that we see in organizations. The next section of this chapter therefore addresses workplace initiatives that promote a positive aging experience at work

Age Diversity Communication Strategies

Organizational culture and strategy have a prominent role to play in changing workplace behaviors. For many organizations, however, age diversity initiatives at the company-wide level are often an afterthought, only implemented after other diversity (gender, ethnicity, etc.) strategy efforts. Until somewhat recently, most age diversity initiatives in companies were largely reactive in nature, and frequently centered around compliance (e.g., a company needs to comply with age discrimination laws) or some kind of age centric dysfunction in the organization (e.g., skews in company age demographics, communication problems between workers of different ages, older worker difficulties with new technology, etc.). While compliance and dysfunction still apply to many of the age diversity initiatives in companies, the age diversity landscape has—to some degree—shifted toward more proactive requests. With the understanding that the best age diversity programs begin with an overarching organizational strategy behind them, we now turn to intergenerational communication research and some examples of “best intergenerational practices” in industry (for a review, see McCann, 2016).

Intergenerational Contact

Contact hypothesis. Cross-generational mentoring, age-appropriate job rotation strategies, and intergenerational team formation represent the backbone of the contact component of many successful age diversified companies. The idea behind these efforts is that increased contact between the generations can help alleviate some of the embedded age stereotype and ageist communication issues highlighted throughout this chapter. Intergenerational contact research began in 1954 when Gordon Allport posited that contact between members of opposing groups, when done under suitable conditions, would reduce intergroup hostility and lead to more positive attitudes of those in the outgroup. Over the following 60-plus years, a major body of research has tested and amended the basic tenets of Allport’s hypothesis (Allport, 1954). An exhaustive 2006 meta-analysis of studies on intergroup contact (including age in/out group contact) found a robust negative effect of contact on prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Contact is now one of the most widely used psychological interventions directed at reducing prejudice and improving intergroup relations (e.g., Oskamp & Jones, 2000). Indeed, Fox and Giles (1993) note that over 50 studies conducted between 1978 and 1993 examined the attitudinal effects of contact between younger and older people.

In the field of intergenerational communication, contact research is also robust, with much of the research conducted in the family/relationship sphere (for a review of the intergroup contact and communication literature, see Harwood & Joyce, 2012). Among other things, research has found that (1) contact frequency significantly correlates to intergenerational relationship strength (e.g., the grandparent-grandchild relationship; Brussoni & Boon, 1998); (2) grandparent-grandchild relationships that are more satisfying or closer typically have more positive outcomes (Isaacs, 1986; see also Tam et al., 2006); and (3) contact quality (e.g., high level of cooperation; positive atmosphere) can sometimes be a better predictor of intergroup attitudes than contact quantity (e.g., contact frequency, the number of people involved in contact) (Brouwer & Boros, 2010; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000).

The age contact research in organizations is limited, and offers particularly exciting opportunities for scholarship. In part filling this lacuna, researchers set out to examine how intergenerational contact may contribute toward mitigating ageism and improving work attitudes about older workers in Belgian financial sector and hospital settings (Iweins, Desmette, Yzerbyt, & Stinglhamber, 2013). Findings from the Iweins et al. (2013) study reveal that high-quality contact between age groups in the workplace is linked to positive perceptions of older workers. Specifically, workers under 50 view older workers (defined in their study as older than 50) as more sociable and competent, and more effective and adaptable in their jobs. Consistent with the work of Avery, McKay, and Wilson (2007), who report that coworker relationships influence employees’ occupational attitudes, Iweins et al. (2013) also found that high-quality intergenerational contact in the workplace is linked negatively to intentions to quit among workers under 50 years old. With this in mind, we now explore a few types of organizational intergenerational contact, beginning with mentoring.

Intergenerational mentoring. Research into the role of age in workplace mentoring is highly limited. On the one hand, traditional mentoring typically involves an older (often senior) employee mentoring a younger worker, which often fulfills the generativity motive, or the motive of guiding the next generation into the future (see Parise & Forret, 2008; for a meta-analysis of generativity work motives across the lifespan, see Kooij et al., 2011). On the other hand, nontraditional mentoring such as reverse age mentoring (younger workers mentor older workers) has garnered minimal empirical research attention, though some studies have suggested that reverse mentoring may reduce negative age stereotypes (Murphy, 2012) and enhance sensitivity for workplace diversity (Chaudhuri & Ghosh, 2012) (for a review of the role of age in workplace mentoring, see Doerwald, Scheibe, & Van Yperen, 2015).

Despite the lack of guiding research, many companies utilize intergenerational mentoring (as one context of contact) in areas such as succession planning, knowledge transfer facilitation, readying new employees to an organizational culture, older and younger worker engagement, and employee retention. Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK; the world’s sixth largest pharmaceutical company as of 2015) encourages intergenerational contact via its intergenerational mentoring program conducted throughout its organization, and internally GSK stresses the “value of mentoring someone different” (Roundtree, 2011). In the United Kingdom, the University of Central Lancashire has won admiration (AARP award in 2010) for its “Fresh Step” program where employees age 50 and above mentor younger employees. “Generational engagement” activities can also coexist alongside mentoring programs. For example, social events (when conducted in a manner that do not systematically disadvantage the older employee) and cross-generational training programs (e.g., younger employees train older employees in new technologies, while older employees assist younger workers in finance) may be held in conjunction with intergenerational mentoring efforts.

Cross-generational teams. The formation of cross-generational teams represents another common age diversity strategy. The teams may be for training purposes only, or more frequently, to add diverse skill sets and views to a team tackling a given organizational task. As is the case with mentoring, cross-generational teams can potentially (at least from anecdotal evidence) provide substantial value to those at all ages of the age spectrum. Consistent with research on older workers, we know that the attributes and expectations of Millennials in the United States (those born between 1979 and 1994; Smola & Sutton, 2002) can affect the development of intergenerational workplace relationships with team and organizational members (e.g., Gursoy, Maier, & Chi, 2008; Howe & Strauss, 2000). Millennial preferences regarding workplace interaction are also important for the positive development of work relationships. Such preferences include a desire by Millennials for close relationships and frequent feedback from supervisors (Gursoy et al., 2008), and a need by Millennials for a greater degree of open communication at work (Remo, 2006). Millennials also display high comfort and ease when working with teams at work (Alsop, 2008). As scholars continue to develop intergenerational interventions for organizations, research results such as the above for the Millennial generation can provide fodder for potential solutions.

Many companies utilize intergenerational teams as a part of their age diversity strategy. At Deutsche Bank AG (a German global banking and financial services company), age diverse project teams are used with the explicit purpose of bridging intergenerational divides, and in the United States at S&T Bank (in Indiana and Pennsylvania), older employees gain new experience by working on team projects with those of different ages and on temporary assignments in other departments.

Symbols of worker achievements. The research highlighted above has shown that intergenerational workplace contact in its various forms (mentoring, teams, etc.) offers considerable promise to both companies and researchers crafting age diversity strategies. The use of communicative symbols of older worker achievement represents another encouraging avenue of scholarship with similar goals, but with a slightly different theoretical underpinning.

Metastereotype scholarship sheds light on why the use of age positive messages (e.g., older worker achievement awards) can have an important role to play in a company’s age diversity strategy. Metastereotypes refer to a person’s beliefs regarding the stereotype that outgroup members hold about his/her own group (Vorauer, Main, & O’Connell, 1998), and represent a distinctive type of relational knowledge structure that stem from a concern (or even in some cases a preoccupation) about how individuals are evaluated by others (Finkelstein, Ryan, & King, 2013). Specifically, metastereotypes highlight a person’s desire to be viewed positively, and demonstrate their general preoccupation with how they are perceived by others. Along these lines, and in order to examine whether older worker attitudes could be boosted by the communication of positive information of older worker abilities and achievements, Gaillard and Desmette (2010) examined workers aged 46–58 in three Belgian organizations. Results from their study found that exposure to positive age-related stereotypical information resulted in lower early retirement intentions for older workers, and that older workers who were exposed to positive age-related stereotypical information were more willing to learn and develop than those exposed to negative age-related stereotypic information. In explaining their findings, Gaillard and Desmette (2010) argue that self-definition as an older worker triggers negative stereotypes about older workers, and subsequently affects their attitudes toward work. This idea is driven by the stereotype threat approach (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002), which states that an individual has an awareness and is concerned about being judged by (or treated in terms of) negative stereotypes and acts accordingly to avoid stereotypical threats.

Many corporations are following suit by incorporating age positive messages in various areas of organizational life. Whether these positive messages are conveyed in small groups (e.g., in workgroups or meetings), interpersonally (e.g., from manager to subordinate), or via widespread distribution throughout the organization (e.g., via public announcements, blogs, and ceremonies), such positive communication can help debunk ageist stereotypes in organizations, and may lead to greater morale and even productivity among the older workforce. In the corporate sector in the United States, Michelin North America (South Carolina) and Scripps Health (California), celebrate long-standing service anniversaries with special announcements, awards, and company parties.

As we consider some of the elements that go into successful aging both in and out of work, the communication of positive information in organizations represents a simple, effective, and low-cost measure for organizations and institutions to promote positive aging. That said, for many organizations—and especially so in the technology industry—another fundamental issue remains. This is that many organizations cannot fully diversify their age strategy efforts unless older workers are appropriately trained in many of the new technologies that today’s work requires. The final section of this chapter addresses some key issues in the sphere of communication technology and training.

Communication Technology and Training

Technology and the Digital Divide

Much of the early literature on age and new technologies has focused on the so-called digital divide, that is, the phenomenon whereby minority group members, women, and economically disadvantaged individuals have less access to (and less proficiency in) technology than do those from majority groups such as wealthy Caucasian men. New technology can also divide people of different age groups. As was illustrated earlier, a robust group of studies informs us that older workers are stereotypically viewed as adapting more slowly to, and being more fearful of, technology than younger workers (e.g., McCann & Keaton, 2013). Results from this same McCann & Keaton (2013) study underscore this point as the “adapting to new technology” stereotype item on their 13-item Worker Perception of Stereotypes (WPS) survey elicited the strongest response from the younger worker study sample.

There are a variety of barriers to technology/computer literacy for older people, including experience (Charness, Holley, Feddon, & Jastrzembski, 2004), access (Selwyn, Gorard, Furlong, & Madden, 2003), interface design and usability (Czaja & Lee, 2003), and even user interest (e.g., older individuals who have minimal or no interest in computer use; Selwyn et al., 2003). Still, as older people increasingly use technology in organizations, the scope and sophistication of the technology will continue to advance as well. Workers of all ages, and especially older workers who may not have been exposed to as many of the changes in technology, will repeatedly need to participate in training (and retraining) activities to remain competitive at work.

Technology and Older Worker Training

A range of cognitive, perceptual, and motor abilities are required to achieve success with new technologies. Scholarship examining the influence of age on mental and physical ability has found age-related declines among older people. For example, cognitive abilities such as working memory and spatial cognition have been reported to decline with age, especially under complex or unfamiliar conditions (Park et al., 2002). That said, the skill acquisition literature indicates that older adults are able to learn new skills, albeit more slowly than younger adults. Older adults also require more practice and environmental support as they learn new technology. There is, however, marked variance in technology learning outcomes. This variance is largely due to person-related factors (e.g., technologically savvy older adults), social factors (e.g., social networks), and environmental factors (e.g., conditions of learning) (for more detail on the training results described here, see Charness & Czaja, 2006).

It is indisputable that the increasing reliance on computer-based technologies in organizations will intensify the demand for skilled workers. As such, workers of all ages will need to adopt and participate in worker training programs. At present, research tells us that older workers receive less support for learning and development activities than do their younger counterparts (Maurer, Weiss, & Barbeite, 2003), though this does not need to be the case. Several studies shed light on the types of technology training programs that may be effective for older individuals. For instance, scholarship by Lee, Czaja, and Sharit (2008) reveals that older participants indicate a preference for group training formats where there are opportunities to learn and share experiences with others (e.g., younger workers). The same study’s participants also stress the importance of engaging in hands-on learning activities. Considerable research supports the active, hands-on technology approach to learning for older learners (for a meta-analysis of the effects of training methods on older learner performance (see Callahan, Kiker, & Cross, 2003).

Additionally, many organizations are choosing to use technology-based instruction (TBI) to deliver technology training, with some estimates showing that roughly one-third of corporate training is now delivered virtually (Green & McGill, 2011). Examples of TBI include computer-assisted training, web-based training, and e-learning. To this end, Taha, Czaja, and Sharit (2016) argue that “training via e-learning, [thus], could be especially beneficial for older adults as not only can they control the timing of training delivery, but they can also have more control over the pace of the training than in classroom learning. Self-pacing during training can be especially valuable for trainees in groups that are comprised of individuals with varying skill levels” (p. 277).

Conclusion

In both the near and distant future, one of the most profound repercussions of population aging will be felt in the workplace. The implications of shifting workforce age demographics are enormous, and individuals, organizations, policy makers, and academics can all play key roles in shaping how the workforce of tomorrow will look. Early movers in the business community have already been responding to this call. BMW, facing age demographic shifts in Germany, has set in motion a detailed plan of how it might cope with demographic age changes. BMW’s plans began with a pilot project where the company added adjustments such as wooden platforms (as opposed to cement floors) for workers to stand on, and magnifying glasses and ergonomic chairs for older workers. Countless companies around the world are also currently implementing older worker programs that include semi-retirement options, flexi-time hours, older worker training (e.g., in new technology), health management, and cross-generational contact and mentoring programs, just to name some. In one 16-country global workforce study that examined retention, attraction, and engagement among 86,000 employees, opportunities to learn and develop new skills were the most important predictors of high employee engagement (Towers Perrin, 2005). This result attests to the global importance of training and skill building in creating and sustaining tomorrow’s engaged, multigenerational workforce.

Traditional mentoring offers many benefits in areas such as succession planning, knowledge transfer facilitation, onboarding, worker engagement, worker retention, and worker retraining (see Allen & Eby, 2011). One might expect that reverse age mentoring would offer several unique benefits as well, but scholarship at present is scarce. Future research is thus required to test the potential benefits of reverse mentoring and the characteristics that may support or hamper effective reverse mentoring. Reverse age mentoring in the area of new technologies represents one context that is ripe for new research.

As we consider technology training for older workers, there are also abundant opportunities for scholarly inquiry. For example, research examining strategies for enhancing older workers’ motivation to participate in training remains limited, as does the role of affect and reward structures in older person technology training. Future research may too explore the influence of technology-mediated forms of collaboration on learning outcomes of both younger and older adults. Wolfson, Cavanagh, and Kraiger (2014), in their excellent review article on older adults and technology-based instruction, specifically call for more work into innovative approaches to determining how older learners interact with and respond to various technology-based instruction manipulations.

Notwithstanding ingrained stereotypes about older workers, research is clear that older workers train and learn effectively, and that they provide tremendous benefits to their organizations and their coworkers of all ages. There are deeper benefits, however, to the older workers themselves. Working late into one’s life can, for many individuals, play a major role in successful aging. In Japanese, there is a concept called ikigai, which means “something to live for, to experience the joy of goals and a life worth living” (Ryff et al., 2015, p. 668). Regardless of age, people frequently find this ikigai at work.

Navigating the effects of demographic shifts and technological advances requires a large-scale concerted effort. While the task may seem large, at the individual level, each of us can pay more attention to our own communication practices (Giles, Davis, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2013). Large change commences with small steps.

Further Reading

Butler, R. N. (1969). Age-ism: Another form of bigotry. The Gerontologist, 9, 243–246.Find this resource:

Coupland, N., Coupland, J., & Giles, H. (1991). Language, society and the elderly. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Cuddy, A. J., Norton, M. I., & Fiske, S. T. (2005). This old stereotype: The pervasiveness and persistence of the elderly stereotype. Journal of Social Issues, 61(2), 267–285.Find this resource:

Finkelstein, L. M., & Farrell, S. K. (2007). An expanded view of age bias in the workplace. In K. S. Shultz & G. A Adams (Eds.), Aging and work in the 21st century (pp. 73–108). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Giles, H., Davis, S., Gasiorek, J., & Giles J. (2013). Successful aging: A communication guide to empowerment. Girona, Catalonia: Editorial Aresta.Find this resource:

Harwood, J. (2007). Understanding communication and aging: Developing knowledge and awareness: Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Harwood, J., & Joyce, N. (2012). Intergroup contact and communication. In H. Giles (Ed.), Handbook of intergroup communication (pp. 167–180). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hedge, J. W., Borman, W. C., & Lammlein, S. E. (2006). The aging workforce: Realities, myths, and implications for organizations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

McCann, R. M. (2012). Ageism at work: The role of communication in a changing workplace. (English version). Girona, Spain: Editorial Aresta.Find this resource:

McCann, R. M. & Giles, H. (2002). Ageism in the workplace: A communication perspective. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons (pp. 163–199). Cambridge, MA: MIT.Find this resource:

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783.Find this resource:

Posthuma, R. A., & Campion, M. A. (2009). Age stereotypes in the workplace: Common stereotypes, moderators, and future research directions. Journal of Management, 35, 1, 158–188.Find this resource:

Williams, A., & Nussbaum, J. F. (2001). Intergenerational communication across the life span. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Find this resource:

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