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Bridging age-old generation gap in the workplace

Joanna Seow on 08 May 2019

The Straits Times


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Strategies include making it easier for staff from different age groups to interact


Service worker Jessie Leu knows all too well that younger employees like herself do not always see eye to eye with older workers, especially in the stressful environment of a busy restaurant.


When Ms Leu, 33, joined the Sushi Express outlet at Sun Plaza last year, she was occasionally scolded by the mostly older kitchen staff if she did not know the name of a dish or placed an order with the wrong person.


"I went to the side-dish station instead of the sushi counter to order sushi. When we get it wrong, the older employees would be angry," she said.


In contrast, her colleague Yeo Seck Eng, 56, finds that younger workers can be impatient and a bit flippant, preferring to do things their own way rather than following the company's standard operating procedure.


"Sometimes, they rush to get the food ready, so we try to tell them to make the dish look nicer," said Madam Yeo, a kitchen worker.


Minor clashes like these occur in workplaces across Singapore and could be a reason for the gap in company culture in terms of working with older people.


A survey published last month found that 96 per cent of Singapore-based respondents said there were benefits when working with colleagues aged 55 years and above.


But it was not all positive, with 51 per cent saying their older colleagues tended to be more close-minded and stubborn, while 43 per cent reckoned they were less adaptable to change.


The poll by recruitment firm PersolKelly noted that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that firms have a culture that encourages or promotes hiring of people over 55.


PersolKelly declined to say how many Singapore respondents were polled in the survey that covered around 7,000 people across the Asia-Pacific.


Mrs Roslyn Ten, general manager of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, said unconscious bias could show up as an ageist mindset, where mature workers are perceived as less productive than younger ones, leading to resistance when hiring or working with older people.


Sushi Express human resource manager Chen Weishan cites the time the restaurant chain bought machines with grilling features to replace open torching.


This was to improve safety for older workers, but some younger employees thought the older ones were being assigned an easier task than theirs.


She added: "This was quickly resolved when the outlet manager explained that the purpose of the job redesign was primarily to benefit the older employees and sought the younger employees' understanding."


Observers said a more inclusive workforce is important as people age and labour supply tightens.


Institute for Human Resource Professionals chief executive Mayank Parekh said: "It should be a business imperative to address such deep-rooted mindsets surrounding older workers."


He added that companies could gather case studies of successful multi-generational workplaces to debunk common myths about older workers, such as claims that they perform worse than their younger colleagues.


Training and mentoring are some of the other strategies suggested by experts to improve harmony among workers of all ages.


Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem said that while an organisation benefits from the wisdom of older workers, these employees must also keep upgrading their skills or pick up new ones to remain relevant.


Organisational psychology associate professor Klaus Templer from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said a time-proven strategy is to have older workers share their knowledge and experience with younger ones.


And now, with technology starting to dominate some workplaces, a reverse-mentoring model can help, where younger people teach older ones how to cope, he said.


"Stereotypes often disappear when people actually work together," he added.


Mr Roger Pua, LinkedIn's senior director of brand marketing and communications for the Asia-Pacific and China, said firms can set up groups that provide workplace support for each generation, while making it easier for staff from different age groups to interact.


Mrs Ten noted that Singapore's employment rate for workers aged 55 to 64 was 67 per cent in 2017, higher than in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States.


Sushi Express adopted the tripartite standard on age-friendly workplace practices last year. This involves pledging not to use age as a selection criterion in hiring and ensuring older workers are adequately trained, among other things.


Ms Leu and Madam Yeo both said it just takes understanding and respect for staff to get along with one another. The simple act of having meals together has helped their team grow closer. Ms Leu said: "It feels like a family."


Madam Yeo added that they also celebrate birthdays and traditional festivals together. Last year, she wrapped dumplings to share during the Dragon Boat Festival.


"Overall, the culture here is nice and close-knit. Working with younger colleagues makes me feel younger too," she said.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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