Protecting Young Workers: Bridging the Age Gap in the Workplace


In a recent blog (Protecting Young Workers from Themselves) we discussed some of the reasons for the relatively high risk tolerance of young (15-24 years old) workers compared with older workers.  We concluded that while there is still cortical structure development during this developmental period that this alone does not explain why this age group is at a higher risk of engaging in unsafe actions and suffering the consequences of those actions. The research demonstrates that the less developed limbic system which is involved in both social and pleasure seeking behavior can at times override the logical capabilities of the young workers and stimulate them to engage in risky behavior.  Because educational programs designed to provide the young workers with the knowledge necessary to effectively interpret their contexts has not proven overly successful, we proposed that one way to impact their risk taking in the workplace is to remove social stimuli such as peers from their work teams and replace them with older, more risk averse and experienced workers, especially those in the 55+ age group.  We suggested that these older workers who understand and can interpret the various workplace contexts could provide mentoring and coaching for the younger workers.  This however introduces another set of issues that must be addressed if this approach is to have the desired impact.  These issues include the perceptions/stereotypes/expectations of each cohort group by the other and the skills necessary to impact those perceptions/stereotypes/expectations. We all have a tendency to focus on actions and traits of other people that fit with our expectations and stereotypes of the groups to which that person belongs, including the person’s age.  We also tend to behave toward that person based on what we perceive them doing and they do likewise to us.  The problem is that what we “see” is driven by what we “expect to see”  and often results in a phenomenon known as the “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (SFP)” which also reinforces our stereotypes and thus our future interactions.  For example, an older worker observes a younger worker engage in some risky behavior and because the older worker views younger workers as thinking they are “bullet proof” he immediately criticizes the younger worker for his failure to “think”.  The younger worker who did what he thought was the right thing in the situation becomes defensive toward the “judgmental/rude” older worker and “smarts off” to him.  This causes the older worker to become defensive and the cycle continues, reinforcing the SFP and strengthening the stereotypes held by both individuals (see “Your Organization’s Safety Immune System (Part 2): Strengthening Immunity” for a more in-depth discussion of defensiveness).

The question is how do we utilize the older workers as coaches for the younger workers without the negative impact of the SFP?  The key is to change the expectations that both age groups have of each other and this requires training.  Facilitated, interactive training programs that address the common impact of the SFP, help people of all ages understand the role of individual differences in performance, teach people how to deal with the Defensive Cycle™, and give them opportunity to interact successfully with each other tend to produce environments where both older and younger workers can capitalize on the strengths that each bring to the table.  While younger workers bring less socioemotional maturity and experience, they also bring creativity, physical strength and a fresh view of the work context.  Older workers bring the experience and a broader understanding of the work context that can help younger workers make better, less risky decisions.  The key is mutual understanding and mutual respect which come from less stereotyping, less defensiveness and more teamwork.