Can older and younger colleagues work together effectively?

The short answer is yes, but not without effort. An age-diverse workforce has definite advantages, but it can also lead to conflicts and sub-grouping. Researchers Dr Anne Burmeister at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), Prof. Fabiola Gerpott of VU Amsterdam, Prof. Andreas Hirschi of the University of Bern, Prof. Susanne Scheibe at University of Groningen, Dr Karen Pak at Radboud University and Prof. Dorien Kooij at Tilburg University provide companies with hands-on training interventions that allow them to benefit from the premises of an age-diverse workforce.

Dr Burmeister: “We demonstrated that our training interventions effectively speak to employees’ hearts (feelings of relatedness to age-diverse co-workers) and minds (knowledge about the expertise of age-diverse co-workers) – two outcomes that are essential for ensuring the long-term success of organisations.”  


Why did you research this?

“With demographic changes, age diversity is increasing in many organisations. Although organisations tend to emphasize the benefits of an age-diverse workforce in their marketing campaigns, the reality is often different. Age-diverse co-workers do not automatically work effectively across their differences.

“The starting point of our research was to paint a more realistic picture of age diversity and help organisations to effectively manage it. That is, we took the notion seriously that increasing age diversity is associated with both challenges and opportunities for younger and older co-workers. For example, a challenge can be identity-based differences that lead to sub-grouping, stereotyping, and conflicts. And it’s an opportunity that knowledge-based differences can improve problem-solving and creativity. We developed training interventions that address both perspectives and demonstrated through an intervention study that these programmes contribute to solving unique challenges of age-diverse co-workers who collaborate in contemporary organisations.”


How did you research this?

“We conducted a so-called randomized controlled field experiment with age-diverse co-worker pairs who voluntarily signed up for the study. The age-diverse co-worker pairs were assigned to one of three groups: the identity-oriented training group (Group 1), the knowledge-oriented training group (Group 2), and the control group that did not receive training (Group 3).

“The age-diverse co-worker pairs in Groups 1 and 2 participated in a specific half-day classroom training, in which they either reflected and learned about the identity-related challenges of age diversity and how to overcome them (Group 1) or the knowledge-related opportunities of age diversity and how to accomplish them (Group 2). All participants filled in questionnaires before the training, directly after the training, and four weeks after the training. In our analysis, we could compare the three groups and see whether our training was responsible for facilitating either contact quality (identity-oriented training) or knowledge transfer (knowledge-oriented training).”


What did you find?

“We found that the identity-oriented training facilitated contact quality as a socio-emotional outcome because age-diverse co-workers felt more similar to each other and less threatened by interacting with co-workers from a different age group. This means the training helps organisations to overcome the challenges of age diversity by ‘speaking to the heart’ of age-diverse co-workers.

“The knowledge-oriented training increased knowledge transfer as a socio-cognitive outcome because age-diverse co-workers knew more about the existence and value of each other’s knowledge. So, this training helps organisations to realise the benefits of age diversity by ‘speaking to the mind’ of age-diverse co-workers.”


How can this be used by businesses?

“Business professionals can use the two age diversity training programmes that we developed and tested to improve the relationships and the knowledge transfer between age-diverse co-workers. The two age diversity training programmes are an evidence-based ‘product’ that can be used in practice.

“Organisations can make use of the two age diversity training programmes. The research team members will continue efforts to create and test training interventions that enable employees to experience pleasant and effective interactions with their age-diverse co-workers.”

The paper was published in Academy of Management Learning & Education, and also became an AOM Insights article.


Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Danielle Baan, Media Officer for RSM, via +31 10 408 2028 or

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