Do Labels Contribute to Ageism?

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I recently experienced an eye-opening moment at a seminar about a common yet perplexing issue facing many firms today: how can multiple generations successfully work together? The big eye-opener came when the facilitator introduced a few familiar terms—the Silent Generation, baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and the emerging Gen Z—and the words were met by resounding resistance. None of the participants wanted to use the age-related labels in the exercise.

But why? These words are used all the time as we work to figure out how to deal with one another and our differences, as employees in the workplace and as business owners trying to reach potential customers in the marketplace. Yet the seminar participants were adamant about not using labels that, in their view, led to ageism.

This was a surprise to me. Using such words has helped me organize information in my head and in my work. The tension between generations in advisers’ offices can be palpable, and it’s become particularly divisive over the past few years. A new set of advisers has started to settle in while more tenured advisers are continuing to work through some of their most productive years. Each group has its preferred way of working as well as expectations about how the other group should operate. Productivity and even firm growth can be hampered when different generations can’t find a way to work well together—or make wrongheaded assumptions about others just because of their age.

The labels, however, are hard to escape. The day after the seminar, I was working with an internal group at my firm to pull together a white paper on what future clients will want from their financial adviser. One of the first steps is researching what has been written about the topic. Every report I came across used those same age-related words to sort the data. As I continue working on this project, I still find the labels more useful than not, and I’m clearly not the only one. If I have been contributing to ageism by using all the labels, so has everyone else in our industry.

Focusing on the Individual

I like to think we all know that words like millennials, Gen-Xers and baby boomers broadly define the characteristics of a group but don’t automatically apply to everyone within it. But are we abiding by this understanding?

In some instances, maybe the distinction isn’t clear. When it comes to ageism, perhaps we have gone overboard in stereotypes. Perhaps we take the words too seriously. Perhaps we forget that an individual is an individual. I’ve certainly heard a number of people assume every millennial needs a trophy or every boomer is overly slow in adopting new technology.

At this point, I’m deeply sunk in an “aha” moment. Some of the conflict between generations may well come from assumptions that stem from stereotypes. That said, I’m not sure how else to go about studying the needs of future clients without the use of labels. The labels are a starting point to understanding where buckets of certain people are in their financial and personal lives, what their needs are and how advisers can help them. It’s a way to begin to reach out to those people and attract them to your practice. It’s then when you can get to know them better, at the individual level.

Perhaps one way to overcome the label issue is to focus on the characteristics of a certain age group and drop the negative connotations that come with a particular term. Looking at “those born between 1946 and 1964” results in the same information as using the label “baby boomer.”

Whatever terminology you use, let’s all remember to let someone be an individual first and foremost. And perhaps our industry should step back and ask if we are contributing to ageism.

Joni Youngwirth_2014 for web

Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass.

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