People who have a passion for traveling abroad often say they relish the opportunity to learn about different cultures, hear unfamiliar languages, meet people from varied backgrounds — in short, to have mind-broadening experiences that change the way they see the world.
While there’s nothing like international travel to accomplish those goals, I think most of us could have similar eye-opening experiences right here, wherever we happen to live, if we just visited a different part of town.
That’s because America has long been a haven to those throughout the world who want to live in freedom. As a result, more than 350 different languages are spoken in U.S. homes today, and neighborhoods reflecting different nationalities and cultures can be found in every major city.
But the way we view our pluralistic society has changed. In the early to mid-20th century, our country was considered a “melting pot” in which the individual ingredients — those already here plus new immigrants from all over the world — were meant to blend together to form a more homogenous product known as “Americans.”
Today, however, I think our society would be better characterized as a bouillabaisse — a rich soup in which all the varied ingredients retain their basic form and taste, but altogether create a new and more interesting mix.
That mix of races, cultures and more is today called Diversity, and the term is not only a description of how varied America has become. It’s a battle-cry in many areas, calling for greater acknowledgement and respect for our differences, and urging greater inclusion of those from different backgrounds in our schools, workforce, marketplace and legislature.
In a way, promoting diversity is a way to put a positive spin on what we used to call anti-discrimination laws. Rather than trying to eliminate prejudice through legislation, the diversity movement, if I can call it that, promotes the value of having all races, sexes, genders, ethnicities, nationalities and religions represented in the public sphere.
Recently, I attended a day-long workshop at the AARP headquarters in Washington, D.C., where the topic was “The Future of Work for All Generations.” I expected the program to address ageism in employment, as that has long been a key issue for AARP.
It did, of course. But it was more than that. The conference, which attracted representatives from business, the media and government, made the case for the benefits to both employers and fellow workers of treating worker age as an element of diversity.
AARP Executive Vice President Debra Whitman noted that there are as many as five generations of workers in today’s companies, and that studies show a mix of ages and intergenerational mentoring within a workforce “drives engagement and performance, increasing the bottom line” for business.
Age discrimination in hiring (and firing) is still pervasive. Many companies continue to have negative attitudes towards older workers that have proven difficult to root out. And that’s despite many studies that show older workers bring a variety of benefits to employers, including experience, networks, reliability, a strong work ethic, superior customer service and flexibility.
So I think it’s a great idea AARP has to reframe the discussion so that age becomes part of society’s focus on the value and importance of diversity and inclusion. Then, making accommodations that help workers of all ages can be seen as a sound business decision, not simply a way to avoid a lawsuit.
For example, BMW made modifications in its plants to meet the needs of workers with various ailments or restrictions. They brought in ergonomic seating, more comfortable flooring and enhanced lighting to help them retain skilled workers. The result was a 7% increase in productivity and below-average absenteeism.
Whitman also pointed out that “a culture of inclusion helps all ages.” For example, she noted that “One in four family caregivers today is a Millennial. So policies that help caregivers help all generations.”
Viewed from the perspective of older workers themselves, this attitude adjustment might make them more willing to learn from bosses who are young enough to be their grandchildren.
Keynote speaker Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State and now a professor of foreign policy at Georgetown University, concluded her remarks by paraphrasing a line from Robert Frost’s poem “What Fifty Said” — “The older I get, the younger are my teachers.”
We’re all in this bouillabaisse of a society together, and our overall success requires as many of us as possible contributing our best.