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Professor Marie Wilson on managing workforces aged 19 to 79 in a business world of increasing age diversity.

The recent University of South Australia study on age discrimination in the workplace highlights the challenges of managing workplaces where staff may range in age from teenagers to those in their 70s.

‘The increasing age diversity in the workplace is unprecedented,’ Professor Marie Wilson, Australian Business Deans Council member and Pro Vice Chancellor (Business and Law) of the University of South Australia Business School says.

In the past, professional careers may have started at age 25 or 30 with most people leaving the workforce at 60. They may not have stayed with the one employer but they remained largely in their chosen professions.

Now, Professor Wilson says, careers are now much longer and more stop-start. ‘We’re talking about populations that may pop in directly after an undergraduate degree at 21, be out for child rearing and education along the way, but basically change repeatedly and not finish their careers.

‘They might start their last career in their 60s and that one will take them out into their 70s. So, the time that we’re spending at work, and therefore the way we treat work and development and family life, is changing,’ she says.

Today’s leaders must manage across a much wider continuum of several generations with different experiences and expectations. These are influenced by how people grew up, their views on how things work, what should come with age, as well as technological skills.

Managers’ previous assumptions may no longer apply because, for example, changes in funding for education or career development will affect 19- to 30-year-olds very differently from those aged 50 to 70.

‘Your assumptions about what people know about technology, what they know about history, what they know about communication is wildly different depending on when they came through the school system, when they came into business and how many diverse experiences they will have had along the way,’ Professor Wilson says.

Many companies, which are starting to track employees’ skills, are finding their staff has more diverse and wide-ranging language sets and work experiences with competitors, suppliers and customers.


A major challenge concerns management’s ability to develop career paths for younger staff when older employees, who are performing well, choose to retain their positions rather than retire.

Professor Wilson says this means managers need to be much more creative with ways to develop younger staff. ‘It’s not just a ladder. It’s about getting the different kinds of experiences,’ she says.

Organisations she knows now exchange staff with suppliers, clients and customers. They move around those with high-potential so the employees develop new and different experiences, and build networks across companies and their stakeholders.

‘It’s becoming much more about horizontal movement as well as moving up in the organisation because the organisations are flat. The combination of flat organisations and diversity means that time and grade is not going to get you there,’ Professor Wilson says.


Increasing workplace age diversity is also leading to changes in workplace mentoring.

‘Good mentoring relationships go both ways: the mentor learns just as much as the protégé,’ Professor Wilson says. However, current research on mentoring shows staff often has more than one mentor.

‘What we look for is people who care about us and our careers and have specific expertise and we tap into them as part of a development network. I think that also makes better use of the diversity in the workforce because if I want to know what’s the protocol in Hong Kong for a particular type of event or meeting, I’m going to go talk to people that I know that have lived there long term. If I need to know something about technology I’m probably not going to talk to the same person.

‘So, understanding that we can talk to people that are younger than us, different than us and learn from them constantly in our career is, I think, one of the important opportunities that is opening up because of diversity,’ she says.

Listen to Professor Wilson’s interview with Leslie Falkiner-Rose, ABDC Communications.

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