The retail trade is the second largest employer in Australia employing approximately 1,302,400 people, accounting for 9.9 per cent of the total workforce, as detailed by the Department of Skills, Education and Employment. The retail industry has a predominately young workforce; the median age for workers in the retail industry is 32 years, with 30.8 per cent of the workforce aged 15 to 24 years, compared with 15.1 per cent across all industries. Despite the retail industry being known to employ predominantly young workers, there has been a gradual increase in the employment of older people across the retail workforce. In the past 20 years, the proportion of retail workers aged 55 years and older has increased from 7.9 per cent to 15.8 per cent.
The increase in older workers in retail is undoubtedly driven, at least in part, by Australia’s ageing population. We have a larger proportion of people aged 65 and older than ever before, and this means more older workers in the workforce overall. More recently, the closure of international borders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a large drop in temporary visa holder numbers. Retail is one of the industries that has traditionally relied on this temporary workforce and is being forced to find employees from other parts of the labour market. As age diversity increases in the workforce, it is imperative to encourage understanding and teamwork across those generations.
A multi-generational workforce employs people from all age groups, from teenagers to octogenarians. Australia is a broad and diverse community, and we have legislated against age discrimination in the workplace. We know that hiring or promoting older workers is essential for multi-generational teams to be successful.
Barriers to recruiting older workers are reduced when managers challenge ageist stereotypes, utilise an age-diverse hiring panel, use age-inclusive language in recruitment documents and focus on the specific skills required for the job. Hiring managers should also be aware of the benefits of recruiting older workers and regularly review and enhance their hiring practices as deemed necessary. Age-inclusive hiring practices facilitate the creation of multi-generational teams within a retail workforce.
Where are the roadblocks?
Beyond our ethical and legal obligations, there are also benefits, and some challenges, to managing a multi-generational workforce. Key benefits of a multi-generational workforce are the diversity of experience, skills, thought and values that each person brings. By its very nature, a multi-generational workforce brings variety in perspectives, which, if harnessed well, can support improved retention, enhanced productivity, knowledge sharing, and innovation. Multi-generational teams can better connect with a wider range of customers; this can translate into increased satisfaction across a more diverse pool of consumers. However, alongside these benefits, some challenges arise from having multi-generational teams within the workforce, most notably employees experiencing ageism at work.
Age discrimination, or ageism, is a commonly experienced form of discrimination. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), between 2018 and 2019, 61 per cent of employment complaints fell under the Age Discrimination Act. Ageism includes generalisations about age groups in society and is typically negative about older people. For example, in the workplace, older employees may be overlooked for promotions if managers make generalisations and assume the employee will retire soon. Despite it being illegal, ageism is unfortunately normalised in many workplaces. Recent research by the AHRC and AHRI (2021) shows that the age at which workers are considered older is becoming progressively younger, and nearly half of Australian businesses admitted to having an age above which they were reluctant to recruit workers, and 13.3 per cent put that age at over 55 years old. Ageism and bias can affect employees of all age groups, not just mature aged workers. For example, younger generations are often stereotyped as self-centred, not loyal to companies, and unable to survive traditional work hierarchies. Ageism at work fosters negative working environments, which is linked to increased staff turnover, lower productivity and less innovation, among other things.
Ageist stereotypes and beliefs about generational differences are often fuelled by myths. Numerous negative stereotypes exist about mature-aged workers, including that they are less productive, slow to learn new skills, hard to get along with, and unfamiliar with technology. Stereotypes about millennials and gen Z workers are that they are selfish, entitled, lazy, and job hoppers. Gen X workers are seen as cynical, hardworking, and quiet achievers. However, research indicates these stereotypes have little truth behind them. Age, in general, is unrelated to performance. Despite this, these stereotypes perpetuate age discrimination and misunderstandings within workplaces, which reduces team performance. A good approach here is to challenge generalisations that surface at work based on an employee’s age. This can be done by organisations having clear policies and providing training about the negative impacts of ageism and bias at work.
Research also shows that intergenerational contact, interacting with people of all different ages, can reduce ageism. This can happen in families, friendships, community groups, sporting groups and at work. Therefore, by having multi-generational teams within a workplace, ageist attitudes are likely to reduce as team members interact and collaborate with others across different generations. Key benefits of multi-generational teams working together include greater flexibility, greater innovation as its members reflect a multi-generational market and enhanced decision making, considering multiple perspectives.Multi-generational teams are typically more innovative, creative and meet the needs of diverse populations better than teams comprising same-age workers. Additionally, having a multi-generational workforce can result in a positive organisational culture, improved company reputation, stability and reduced turnover, and improved organisational diversity. Indeed, there are many positive benefits retailers can harness by having diverse, multi-generational teams.
Tips for successful multi-generational workplaces:
- Focus on the common ground among the generations. Research into multi-generational workplaces suggests that everyone wants meaningful work, opportunities to learn and develop, work-life balance, and to be treated fairly and with respect.
- Role-model multi-generational respect. When team members are falling back on generational stereotypes, talk about this. Consider also your anti-discrimination policies and manager training about discrimination and working with older people.
- Use multiple channels of communication. To improve your communication reach across all employees (not just across generations), use digital channels such as Teams, Yammer, texts, and social media, as well as meetings, toolboxes, newsletters and emails.
- Provide equal access to opportunities. Take a consciously age-neutral approach to managing the career paths and life goals of team members. Provide equal access to training, promotion, work adjustments and flexible work.
- Create cross-generational interactions. Leverage opportunities to deliberately mix things up. When structuring teams, forming a project or standing up a special interest committee, think about how to introduce age diversity as well as the mix of skills, experience and background that would be most beneficial.
- Do not make assumptions. Assumptions come from stereotypes, and stereotypes are often inaccurate. Talk to people about where they are at, what their goals are, and what they need to be productive and to look after their wellbeing.
- Implement two-way mentoring. Whether formal or informal, cross-generational mentoring has been shown to have a positive impact on engagement and mental health. Recognising and harnessing the strengths of the team members across all ages accelerates learning, builds confidence and supports knowledge retention within your business.
These tips put you on the path to reducing the negative mental health impacts of ageism at work, and reaping the many benefits associated with having multi-generational and diverse work teams.