5 Ways to Bridge the Age Gap at Work

With at least four generations working at once, colleagues struggle to get along. Some tips.

With more baby boomers putting off retirement, the share of older adults in the workplace is greater than it’s ever been. Indeed, workers aged 75 and older are the fastest-growing age group in the workforce. But the biggest news is this: We’re experiencing the widest-ever age gap at the office, with workers ranging from 22 to 75 years old. Four different generations are in the office together at the same time—baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Yers.

Such disparities in age can lead to misunderstandings and bias, preventing teams from doing their best work. “You’ve heard all the stereotypes—millennials don’t want to work hard, Gen Z doesn’t listen, baby boomers are to blame for everything,” says Frances Weir, an associate principal with Korn Ferry Advisory. While none of those assumptions are true, patience and understanding are required in order for employees from different generations to come together, she says. Here are five ways workers and leaders can bridge the age gap at work.

See each generation as a valuable resource.

Long-tenured employees bring history and institutional knowledge, as well as the maturity to handle our ever-changing world. Meanwhile, younger employees bring digital savvy and a commitment to purpose that can help transform organizations. In addition, younger workers can provide insight into the customer segments companies are trying to attract and offer advice on how to connect with them, particularly through the use of Instagram and TikTok. “Different generations of employees can value and appreciate the unique perspectives each brings to the workplace and learn from each other,” says Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry senior client partner.

Listen to each other.

Conversations often break down when colleagues don’t listen to each other’s views or opinions. “Gen Z employees need to be respected as working adults and colleagues. Otherwise it’s clear you’re not seeing them as equal players in a conversation,” says Alma Derricks, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Consumer and Culture, Change & Communications practices.

While it can be easy to see age-related workplace conflicts as unbridgeable, in most cases, each generation has a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. For instance, young consultants sitting shoulder to shoulder in a conference room might find it necessary to use headphones to get their work done—but the senior partner might bristle at the idea of a client approaching them without being noticed. Unless each side takes the time to understand the other’s viewpoint, they won’t come up with a solution, Derricks says. In this case, once the senior partner understood that younger employees needed to eliminate distractions while working, but also grasped the importance of interacting with the client, an agreement was reached: Headphones would not be used in the team room, but an employee who needed to produce a report or do heads-down work would be allowed to do so away from the client site, she said.

If you’re a boomer, encourage younger employees to take the lead.

Providing mentorship to a younger employee means doing more than just having a casual discussion with them about your work, Derricks says. Make interactions meaningful and give the mentees a project they can take ownership of under your guidance, she says. For instance, allow a younger employee to give a presentation to senior leadership, but take the time beforehand to advise and prep them on best practices, she says.

If you’re a Gen Zer or millennial, find an older mentor.

Many younger employees rely on peers and family members for advice, but most would benefit from the support of a trusted office colleague with twenty years of experience navigating the workplace, Derricks says. “Seek out a senior employee who can be a real confidant and friend, who you can have honest conversations with about work and what you don’t understand,” she says.

If you’re Gen X, be the mediator.

Gen X employees are in the unique position of having one foot in each world—life before and after technology’s integration into the workplace. “Gen X can be the ultimate interpreter and translator for baby boomers and millennials and Gen Z because they can see both sides,” Derricks says. 

For more expert career advice, connect with a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.