For all its controversy, the rapid adoption of AI in workplaces may prove a vital ingredient in stamping out a long-term pestilence: ageism.
All generations are subjected to sweeping stereotypes: older workers grapple with change and fail to embrace new tech as fast as younger generations, while Gen Z workers – those aged between 11 and 26 years old – instinctively know how to use any new technology. Both are incorrect.
And yet workplace age bias remains rife. Two in three U.S. adults aged 50+ years old believe that older workers face discrimination about their age at work, according to a September 2022 survey from analyst AARP Research. And most (93%) of the 2,945 respondents believe ageism is rife in workplaces today.
Certain industries like tech and advertising are notorious for favoring the young. Many seasoned ad execs confess that everyone at some point “aggressively age out” of the sector earlier than others like finance or design.
Misconceptions based on stereotypes, for example, older employees’ ability to adopt AI tools in the workplace can have several effects, according to Dr. Andrea Derler, head of research at Visier, a people analytics and workforce planning platform. “More obviously, it’s possible that older workers are being excluded from being offered learning opportunities about AI, overlooked as possible choices to leading new innovative projects, or simply not get that next job,” she said.
But these generalizations around age groups rumble on. Nearly two-thirds (58%) of HR managers recently polled, agree that older generations will feel less confident at work compared to their younger coworkers, due to the rise of AI, according to a recent study by learning management platform TalentLMS.
“There are solutions to make the workplace more appealing to older generations and more trusted by them, and keep them there. Then there shouldn’t be any reason for them to feel less confident than younger people when it comes to AI,” said Helen Normoyle, co-founder, women’s clinic My Menopause Centre. Hybrid and flexible working and even job shares, should be table stakes, she said. “It’s also about giving people the training to embrace the workplace too – just because you’re over 50 doesn’t mean you stop learning, plus, you bring decades of experience which can be a huge advantage. It’s about designing work that will fit people’s lifestyles at this age and giving them training and tools they need,” she added.
But there are clear indicators that the adoption of gen AI may turn these stereotypes on their heads. Half of all respondents in Visier’s latest study, across ages, said they’re concerned about AI’s impact and 68% think it is very important for them to start building AI skills.
Meanwhile, 44% of 55-64 year-old respondents to a recent study from customer engagement platform Amdocs have no interest in using AI at work. But it also showed that 28% of 25 to 34-year-olds have no interest in doing so either.
“The bottom line is: older workers seem to be as likely to worry about the impact of AI on their own skills in the workplace as younger workers,” said Derler. “This shows that – regardless of age – workers are in the same boat, worry about the same things, and are keen on developing the same skills. Organizations and their leaders need to take stock of existing skills of the workforce, identify skills gaps and match them with the appropriate learning and development opportunities for all.”
Naturally, senior executives within organizations have assessed the value of incorporating so-called traditional AI within their business infrastructures for some years, whether in the form of people analytics or other automated systems used to improve certain outcomes. But it’s the way generative AI has caught fire among all professional levels of employee, from entry level to the most senior roles, because of its ease of access, that has made it a popular tool across age groups, and in that sense a technology leveller.
“There’s nothing you have to do for that [ChatGPT]. You have to download it and then it’s self explanatory, and that’s why it’s taken off,” said Marco Bertozzi, co-founder of independent consultancy community The Zoo London. “Now there are more complex and less complex ways of using it. But fundamentally, you don’t need to get underneath the hood. And I think it’s when people have to get under the hood of things that you start to get the generational gap.”
Previously, through other digital cycles, such as the dawn of social media platforms, and programmatic advertising, older members of teams Bertozzi has worked with have often needed to really spend time and work on deeply understanding the premise of these new trends, in order to then inform strategic decisions. But generative AI tools require no such labor, he stressed.
Julia Hammond, president of advertising group Stagwell Global, said she uses generative AI to write first draft scopes of work. She’ll also use it to brainstorm new product names and other tasks that would typically have been assigned to more junior agency staff. But rather than take three days, it will take 15 minutes.
“Speaking for myself, and older account people, I’m like – this is our moment.” she added. “Because [client] relationships matter more than anything. AI can replace the younger up and coming entry-level talent, but it can’t replace relationships.” In an industry like advertising, relationships with CMO clients at major brands is the ultimate currency for ad execs. “This could actually make older people even more valuable than they’ve ever been before,” she added.
Russell Marsh, CEO of independent consultancy BlueMozaic, regularly advises business leaders on AI implementation and stresses that AI won’t widen any potential generational gaps within workforces. He referenced that on recent business trips to New York City he has been struck by how it’s the older entrepreneurs who are most interested in using AI to improve performance, while their younger counterparts have seemed more at sea with it. “I don’t think it’s generational, it’s attitudinal,” he said. “People who are comfortable with change are more likely to grasp the opportunities that AI can bring.”