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May 4, 2021

Power of Younger vs. Older People in World Civilizations: What We Can Learn for the Modern Workplace

A common complaint of older people in Western cultures is that younger generations do not respect their elders. Much of this perceived disrespect begins in adolescence when older children “talk back” to their parents and shun their grandparent’s affection. Adolescence in many cultures is a time in which young people test their limits, and competing with elders for independence is often a part of this phenomenon. 

Unfortunately, this disrespect does not always end when children grow up and leave their parent’s home. Rather, stories abound of college students being rude towards their professors in general and senior lecturers in particular. Young adults who enter the workforce straight from secondary school often exhibit similar behaviors. Older workers are often mistreated by their younger counterparts. In addition, young people frequently get fired for insubordination against their bosses. 

All of this leads us to an important question: has there always been a battle between the generations? A look at ancient and more traditional cultures indicates that older people have 

historically been respected and valued. This cross-cultural information has important implications for how we should treat mature talent. 

People of Mature Years are Traditionally Respected and Valued

We can learn a lot about the value of 50-plus employees from how elders are treated in other cultures. One of the regions where elders are treated the best in modernity is Asia. Specifically, Confucian thought holds that people who are older should be respected and cared for by younger people. To that end, China, Japan, and Korea have many multi-generational houses where children look after their parents and grandparents. When a younger person needs advice or wisdom, an older person is consulted. In this way, older people can contribute to their societies. 

Likewise, in India, the children take care of their aging parents. Originally, this meant that a young man would get married and move his bride into the home where he grew up. As the family grew, this young couple would take care of the husband’s parents while earning a living. In exchange, the parents helped raise their grandchildren. They also help pass traditions down from one generation to the next. This represents a symbiotic relationship between people of different ages. 

These modern arrangements are similar to what was seen in traditional cultures many centuries ago. For instance, the Romans treated their elders with deference. Not only were they cared for by family, but “elders” would be consulted when the local government needed advice. Older people have seen things that are foreign to the young, and this experience was a recognized asset. 

Modern Culture is Hard on Its Elders

An unfortunate side effect of both urbanization and a falling birthrate is that children are less willing to care for their family members. Not only do many younger people not have enough space for a “mother-in-law suite,” but parents often don’t want to move in and “be a burden.” As a result, older people are often put into retirement homes and nursing facilities. For all too many older people, as family moves away loneliness sets in. This problem has become so acute that some public policymakers are encouraging better family engagement with the elderly. European countries are incentivizing younger people to be supportive of their parents and grandparents. Younger people are increasingly expected to “be there” for the old. 

Young People Have Always Been Valued for Their Vigor

A quick survey of most cultures reveals that youth has always been valued to some extent. Traditional cultures such as Native American tribes have always expected younger people to work hard. For instance, young men go out and hunt, bringing in food for the rest of the community. Likewise, young women would keep the house and garden going. Other cultures have similar expectations of young people. 

Even looking at the earlier generations in Europe and North America, young people have been expected to have a job or keep the home. Strength and agility are important to the Western view of youth, as it has been for centuries. They also have continued to enjoy a reputation for learning new things quickly and for fueling innovation. At the same time, younger people were expected to earn the rights of seniority over time. 

Mature Talent is Struggling in the Workplace

Unfortunately, these days there is a lot of mistrust between the generations. As mentioned above, older people are often disrespected by young people. In turn, mature workers often view younger ones with mistrust. Phrases like “they’re entitled” and “they won’t work” are commonplace. Worse, there can be a sort of warfare between the generations: younger workers want their boss’ job, and 50-plus employees feel threatened by this. Ageist sentiments, such as “why don’t you make room for younger workers,” are relatively common. 

Because of this trend, mature talent often feels it is necessary to guard their positions. Combined with a sense that they are no longer valued, “the drift” starts to set in. This loss of focus, in turn, seems to justify sentiments among younger workers that the older ones should just retire. Worse, hiring managers often hesitate to interview mature talent for new positions out of fear that they’ll start with one foot in retirement. In other words, the value of the older generation is often underestimated. 

How Wise Force Can Help

At Wise Force, we believe that employers and younger employees alike should value 50-plus employees. Whether it’s learning more about hiring mature talent or encouraging younger employees to learn from older ones, we are here for you.

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