The Future Is Diverse. Not Diverted.
How mindfulness can mitigate ageism and improve employee well-being for all ages
This article was published in the June issue of Employee Benefits & Wellness Excellence, published by HR.com.
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Across the world, governments are raising the retirement age to accommodate the changing demographics. As we live longer, the future of employee well-being needs to take into account the unique needs and preferences of a more age-diverse workforce. Overcoming generational stereotypes is crucial for the future of employee well-being, not only for older employees but for all. It promotes a more holistic understanding of individuals' skills, experiences, and perspectives, enabling better teamwork, knowledge sharing, and innovation. It also promotes intergenerational learning and mentorship opportunities, benefiting both junior and senior employees.
Nevertheless, generational stereotyping is common and often shows itself as prejudice and discrimination against people based on their age, also known as ageism. In their report on ageism, the World Health Organization (WHO) declares that 1 in 2 people are ageists against older people. The report alsoannounces the profound negative consequences it has on older adults' health and well-being, which include poorer mental health, higher levels of depression, anxiety, and lower subjective well-being. While there is increasing attention to the issue of age discrimination and its impact on individuals and organizations, it is a difficult issue to combat as ageism is so commonly accepted and ingrained into policies, laws, institutions, and general beliefs. Ageism is often not recognized as a problem as we are simply not aware of it being present.
The Comfort of Boxes
One of the dominating ageist stories of our society, which most of us unconsciously adhere to daily, is that everything is downhill from the time we turn 50. When we buy “anti-aging creams” or applaud each other for “looking good for our age”, we are agreeing to a cultural narrative that considers being young as something positive and old as negative. Young people are seen as more beautiful, healthy, physically powerful, cognitively sharp, and energetic. Older people are considered less beautiful, physically and mentally slower, and less flexible.
If we go beyond the dichotomous old/young distinction, we also like to classify ourselves as belonging to a certain generation. Are you a Boomer or Zoomer? We all love to make sense of a complicated world by placing ourselves and others into boxes. It is a comforting way to create rules and patterns in an otherwise complicated and unpredictable world, and it gives us a sense of identity.
But stereotyping of any kind hinders cooperation and innovation in organizations and limits the well-being and potential of the individual. Instead of allowing ourselves to see the potential of a person, we treat and judge each other on the base of preconceived ideas.
Well-being Starts with Awareness
Of course, organizations play a crucial role in creating age-inclusive environments by implementing age-inclusive policies. But as with all cultural changes, the change ultimately depends on the people who are making up the culture. When it comes to stereotyping and ageism, we are all perpetrators and victims. It is up to each one of us to look inside and explore how we see and treat ourselves and our colleagues. We need to step out of automatic pilot and see beyond those self-created limiting boxes. Mitigating ageism starts with awareness, simply because we cannot change anything if we are not aware of its existence. Once we see our patterns, we gain the freedom to, over time, re-wire our inner and collective neurological patterns of thoughts and behavior. Mindfulness is a way to gain this awareness.
Mindfulness as a Tool to End Stereotyping
Mindfulness is widely recognized as beneficial for our overall well-being. So far, it has mostly been used in organizations to reduce stress, enhance emotional regulation, focus, and attention, or generally create better well-being. However, the changing demographics call for a new reason for organizations to offer mindfulness training to their employees; as a way to end generational stereotyping and improve collaboration across a multi-generational and diverse workforce.
One of the reasons why mindfulness improves well-being is because it increases self-awareness. This insight, coupled with the compassion trainingthat is inherent in any mindfulness training, makes it an astute tool for stepping out of automatic pilot and recognizing and rectifying when we stereotype and limit ourselves and each other.
Aging Is Not the Problem. Ageism Is
Stopping ageism is not the same as closing our eyes to the challenges that come with age. As responsible employers, we need to address the specific needs and challenges faced by the aging demographics of our workforce without letting it become ageist.
While some employees may require additional health and wellness offers that address age-related health concerns, it doesn´t mean that all employees over a certain age need this attention or that younger employees couldn´t benefit from similar special care.
Offering flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work or phased retirement options, is often mentioned as a way to be an age-friendly workplace, but why does this flexibility have to be limited to older employees?
A society or organization with an increasing amount of older people is usually not seen as something favorable. But what if we step out of automatic pilot and see the changing demographics as a catalyst for a positive transition in which we are all seen as individuals with individual potential, wishes, and needs – not just as belonging to a certain box with a number on? It could be the impetus to allow all employees to mix the 3 spheres of working, learning, and resting in a more balanced way throughout their lives, which would allow all to stay healthy, happy, and employed for years beyond the current retirement age.
Aging is not a problem for our well-being or contribution. The challenge is our (self-) limiting thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Most of us could use some help to be mindful of those.
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