The Bottom-Line Reasons for Mixing the Young and Old at Work

Harlem’s Settepani has all the hallmarks of a hipster restaurant: a playwright on staff helped draft the menu, another worker staged an exhibit featuring his photography, and a musician waits tables between gigs. What’s unusual is how seasoned this eclectic crew looks. The resident “mixologist” was making cocktails before many of his customers were born, a 70-year-old porter only works during non-shipment hours because he can’t do heavy lifting&emdash:about half of Settepani’s 50 employees qualify for AARP membership.

This is not some marketing quirk. Owners Leah Abraham and her husband, Antonino Settepani, find that hiring people across all age groups reduces turnover and creates a culture of co-mentoring, where a young cook teaches the head chef to manage supplies online and the veterans train apprentices in the culinary arts. Among other things, Settepani says, “younger girls often prefer to work late, while some of our older ladies like to come in the morning. You want a place where everyone meets their needs and works well together.” Adds Abraham: “It’s like a family where everyone helps each other.”

It’s certainly helped the Italian restaurant and its sister bakery stand out among New York City’s 24,000 eateries. Last week, Settepani was honored with an inaugural Age Smart Employer award from the city. The other winners included Montefiore Medical Center, Pfizer, and Renewal Care Partners, a long-term care business started by two recent MBAs. Unlike, say, the AARP’s award in recognition of best employers for workers over 50, which recognizes beneficial labor practices, the city’s age-smart designation is about identifying businesses in which a multigenerational workplace boosts the bottom line.

The idea, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, came from Ruth Finkelstein, a health policy expert at the New York Academy of Medicine who has already received global recognition for her Age-Friendly NYC partnership with the mayor’s office and city council. Finkelstein has battled corrosive stereotypes before as one of the architects of the 1990 Ryan White CARE Act, which brought medical treatment to lower-income people living with HIV/AIDS. Older workers labor under many misconceptions on the job: that they’re less productive, less interested in skills training, less trusting, and less willing to put in long hours. Millennials find themselves typecast as narcissistic job hoppers who only want to work with their peers. Neither image is true. The most successful employers create a flexible environment that draws on the strengths of both age groups, giving everyone a chance to build their skills and advance.

“Adapting to older workers isn’t enough,” says Finkelstein. That’s a timely message as the U.S. struggles to deal with a cycle of long-term joblessness that’s been especially tough to break for youths and for those over 55, many of whom are cut off from further unemployment benefits. While some 300 chief executive officers have taken up President Obama’s call to hire from among the long-term jobless, the mission is largely cast as a charitable one. Few see a multigenerational workplace as a strategic advantage in itself.

Perhaps more would if they looked at the success of innovations from intergenerational day care to reduced health-care costs as workers become more engaged in managing their own health. The best teams tend to include young and old.

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