It's hardly news that most companies want a young workforce. Conventional wisdom says that millennials are tech-savvy "digital natives," with plenty of personal energy to work long hours and fewer outside distractions. Older workers, by contrast, are considered so undesirable that they must be protected by an act of Congress.

Most companies deploy multiple tactics to attract and retain millennials. For example, companies try to have a "cool office," like an open plan facility festooned with hipster tchotchkes, video games and playground equipment. They also almost exclusively feature millennials in the "what it's like to work here" photos on their websites.

Many companies also deploy multiple tactics to force older workers out. A recent Forbes article listed eleven that can be executed without running much risk of a discrimination lawsuit. These include eliminating the job (rather than firing the individual), targeted layoffs (with a few youngsters to provide cover) and terminating oldsters for minor infractions.

Since so many companies are doing this that it had to be made illegal, it's easy to assume that the logic behind tactics is justified--that younger workers ARE smarter, higher energy, more flexible and tech-savvy. However, these same companies have fallen prey to dozens of management fads, so maybe the fact that "everyone is doing it" doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea.

I'd maintain that the "we want a younger workforce" logic is deeply flawed and that for every older worker who's crusty and hidebound there's a corresponding younger worker who's callow and feckless. More important, intellectual skills tend to be cumulative rather than innate. Experience usually beats raw talent.

Indeed, Nature magazine recently published findings from a study of 30,000 scientists, artists, and directors showing that periods of superlative work (aka "hot streaks") are just as likely to happen when you're 75 as when you're 25. As Slate neatly summarized:

"There is an insidious and pervasive feeling that the best years of our lives exist somewhere between the ages of 27 and 45, give or take a few years. That is the implicit message of both 40-under-40 lists and age discrimination in the workplace. Once you're past those solidly middle-age years, your days of accomplishment must be long behind you. The Nature study turns that assumption upside down and effectively says that it doesn't matter where you are in your career--there's still time to make great work."

So that's that, unless you think biz-blab is more reliable than peer-reviewed science.

However...

Just for the sake of argument, let's accept that the logic behind wanting a younger workforce is 100% valid and that recruiting youngsters and dumping oldsters actually DOES create a huge competitive advantage, because the youngsters cost less and get more done.

Well, if that's true of regular employees, wouldn't it also be true for executives and boards of directors? If being a "digital native" is so damn important, shouldn't every executive and board member who's Gen-X or older immediately resign in favor of younger replacements--assuming that they're truly committed to maximizing the investor's profits?

In fact, if you step back a bit, "youthifying" top management actually makes MORE sense than doing the same to regular employees because, while technical expertise and intellectual ability are cumulative, creating a "vision for the digital age" and spouting biz-blab requires no experience whatsoever. 

Anyway, as with open plan offices, the quest for a younger workforce has a hidden agenda. Corporations want youngsters not because they're more productive but because they're easier to manipulate. It's the same reason armies recruit the young; the middle-aged are more likely to say "go take a flying whatever" when asked to work over the weekend.

I suspect that many Gen-Xers and Boomers have, through experience working in corporate environment, come to the same conclusion as myself, which is that office workers should unionize and take back control of their lives. And if millennials are as smart as they're supposed to be, they'll use their vaunted "tech-savvy" to hasten the process along.

Published on: Oct 11, 2018