The implications of age diversity in multicultural team working

Research at the University of West London’s Business School examined the implications of age diversity and stereotyping in the effectiveness of multicultural teams. Vito Paldo and Dr Sue Shortland report on its findings.

Multicultural and age diversity in an international workplace
Considerable attention has been paid in the expatriate literature to fostering diversity, particularly in respect of gender and, to an increasing extent, sexual orientation and race. Very little has been written to date, though, on age diversity and its implications in an international context.

Perception of age and the resulting affects

Today’s workforce is multigenerational; Baby Boomers work side by side with generations X, Y and Z. As people continue to work beyond traditional retirement age, and as Millennials increasingly enter the workforce, so it is not unusual for four generations to be represented in workplace team structures.Such age differences present interesting challenges for organisations; the perceptions of age can affect working relationships, management styles and communications.Societal cultures have varied perceptions – both positive and negative – of age. For example, East Asian cultures, such as those of Japan and China, view older workers positively, as bringing wisdom and experience to the workplace. Ageing employees are valued. Millennials undertaking foreign assignments to such countries may therefore experience difficulties in gaining respect, owing to their relative youth.In Western societies, on the other hand, ageing employees may be viewed negatively. Older workers may be seen as being less flexible in their ability to learn, harder to train, and more resistant to change. Younger employees, by contrast, are frequently viewed as ambitious, quick to learn, and more enthusiastic.Perceptions of age are not consistent. Older workers may, alternatively, be considered more reliable, loyal and courteous, while younger ones may be seen as concerned about self-promotion, lacking loyalty, and liable to change jobs more quickly.In multicultural teams, age diversity can present particular challenges, especially when younger workers manage older ones.
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Age-diversity research findings

Research carried out in a healthcare organisation among supervisors and subordinates working in multigenerational and multicultural teams indicated mixed views on the benefits of age diversity.With staff aged from under 25 to 50, the workforce spanned three generations – X, Y and Z. Cultures represented included Western and Eastern European, Australasian, North American and Asian.Managers, typically aged 30-40, reported that it was easier to manage younger team members in the main, as this enabled the development of authority through an age-related hierarchy. That said, they acknowledged the benefits flowing from an age-diverse team; age diversity was considered to have a positive impact on performance.Managers also revealed that they learnt from younger staff, improving their knowledge. When team members were older than their managers, problems were sometimes experienced by the managers in ensuring that their instructions were followed.Younger supervisors also reported some lack of respect from their teams, occasionally leading to loss of confidence.When it came to team members’ views on age diversity in management, opinions were mixed. Some welcomed older managers, recognising their experience and understanding of company career structures. Others saw them as too set in their ways, and preferred direction from younger people, who were more flexible in managerial style.
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Team members also expressed a range of views on the benefits of age diversity among the subordinates in the team. Age diversity was mostly viewed in a positive light. Explanations indicated that the experience of older team members was valued highly, while those at the beginning of their careers boosted team energy and spirit, bringing new ways of thinking into the team.Mixed ages helped team members to overcome problems through their different levels and types of experience. However, coordination problems, leading to misunderstandings, were sometimes encountered when age differentials within the team were large, especially if different approaches were enacted by younger and older team members.Some team members welcomed homogeneity in age, as they believed that they had more in common with each other.

Age-diversity training

The research indicated that diversity training was considered by managers and team members to be very important. A particular focus on age diversity, so that all could understand the benefits it could bring to intercultural team working and the potential dangers of age stereotyping, was welcomed.Old and young, and different cultures, will increasingly work together in multigenerational and multicultural teams as internationalisation gathers pace. A focus on age-diversity training can most surely enhance team outputs through mutual respect and understanding.
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