The world of film and television has delivered many pieces of work revolving around workplaces. You’ve got television series such as The Bold Type, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, The IT Crowd, 30 Rock, and the list goes on. Workplace movies, too, are a dime a dozen. One of the most memorable workplace movies, (which has also notably been gaining a lot of popularity on streaming services lately), is The Intern, the 2015 film which stars Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro.
If you haven’t watched the movie yet, I recommend you do. Because behind the polished, Hollywood-style, sappy package, The Intern is about age diversity in the workplace. Also, Spoiler Warning! Please make sure you’ve watched the movie before proceeding with this article.
In a nutshell: Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, an entrepreneur and founder of a super successful online fashion company, About the Fit, that has gone from 0 to 220 employees in eighteen months. Robert De Niro’s character, Ben Whittaker, is a 70-year-old retired widower who is quite done with the thrill of retirement and would like nothing more than to work again. As he puts it himself, he is looking for “the connection, the excitement, a place to go, the feeling to be needed.” Jules’ company participates in a trial program for senior interns, Ben lands the internship, and that's where the movie begins.
Now, although watching the movie gave me the classic Hollywood, feel-good, snug-under-the-sheets-with-a-box-of-tissues-and-snacks vibe, I also picked up on some valuable lessons about age diversity in the workplace. And I mean the real, non-dramatised workplace.
Here’s an examination of how The Intern explores age diversity in the workplace:
How The Intern explores age diversity in the workplace:
1. Practice inclusivity in the recruitment and onboarding process
About three minutes into the movie, I hear the voice of Ben presumably telling the listener about his life post-retirement. A few scenes in, I realise that Ben is recording a cover letter video to apply for the Senior Internship Program at About the Fit. He was able to submit the video, (which was successfully received with tears and appreciation at the firm), but it also raised a pertinent issue about the nature of today’s recruitment processes.
Ben’s a baby boomer, which means he’s from a generation of people that aren’t particularly tech savvy. And yet, the flyer for the internship program instructed applicants to show them who they were with a cover letter video, and called traditional cover letters, “old fashioned.” Perhaps that was a deliberate move to test the applicants’ abilities despite their seniority, or perhaps they just couldn’t shake off the tendency to modernise boring old recruitment practices.
Then there was another endearing moment in The Intern, where Ben, after being interviewed by a bunch of twenty-somethings, sets his table up and opens up his MacBook but then doesn’t know what to do next. The guy sitting next to him notices this and subtly shows him to hit the space bar to start up the laptop, and helps him avoid any embarrassing moments.
These scenes got me thinking that age diversity in the workplace also means you need to conduct a recruitment process that works according to the abilities of the older generation and provide them with a custom onboarding process.
Because, although a baby boomer like Ben was hired because of his wealth of experience in business management, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have worked with Google Hangouts or Zoom before. Stuff like uploading a video or switching on a laptop isn’t rocket science, but making the experience less challenging or making the onboarding process more inclusive will help to avoid painfully awkward moments.
2. Teams get better when multiple generations are involved
The Intern also gave several helpful lessons on how to better support your people at work. Upon joining the firm, Ben immediately noticed things that most people often ignored. For example, the stack of random junk drove Jules nuts and Ben was receptive enough to notice this and cleared it all out early the next day. So, in the short time that he was there, Ben quickly made himself an invaluable member of the team.
There are also a couple of instances in the movie where Ben goes out of his way to lift the other members of the team. During various points in the movie, we can see the assistant struggling under a lot of pressure at work, coupled with disorganisation and a little bit of time management problems. And despite it all, she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. So, later in the movie, Ben makes sure that she gets credit for some of the work that she helped him with and makes sure that he points it out to the CEO.
He even gives a lot of positive feedback to Jules herself, when she’s got some self-doubts about her ability to lead the company. So, in The Intern, we learn that age is not a restriction to becoming vital to the team. And while working in a multi-generational team is certainly not easy, the challenges are certainly worth it. Age diversity in the workplace makes workplaces all the better for it.
3. Keeping an open mind is encouraged
Nearly all the staff employed at About the Fit were either in their twenties or thirties. If you had employees who were more or less from the same generation, it would be easy for them to start thinking that everyone looks at the world the same way they do. But having an entire workforce with a similar thought process may not bode well from a business perspective.
So, a soft gag like asking a retired, 70-year-old Ben what his 10-year plan is, would land the laughs, but also give you some perspective on what does and does not work for a diversified workforce.
Having a diversified workforce in terms of age - but also in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation - opens people’s minds. Age diversity in the workplace also means that every generation brings a different set of skills to the table. So, while the office abounds with hustlers and tech-savvy professionals, Ben brings over forty years of experience, skills, and perspective.
So, if you work in a team with people between 20 and 70 years of age, you’re bound to hear different perspectives on every idea that comes up and discover that there’s more than one way to tackle a situation.
4. Age diversity creates a workplace of cross mentorship
Mentoring is often limited to one’s age and experience with youth. However, the most powerful type of mentorship is always reciprocal. In one of the funny plot lines, Ben taught the younger guys in the office about the importance of carrying a handkerchief or the importance of apologising face-to-face rather than in text. Even in Jules’ case, he was often present for her as an advisor and counsellor rather than a mentor and reassured her decisions that she already knew were the right ones.
In return, the younger employees instructed Ben about technology and he was exposed to new work practices & cultures, and the idea of stay-at-home husbands. So, the younger employees started trying to adopt some of Ben’s mannerisms, and he in turn started being more open to them.
We are all aware that the global workforce is ageing, and one of the biggest challenges of that is the skills gap that reciting workers leave behind. Age diversity in the workplace can enable organizations to launch initiatives like cross-mentorship programs. In doing so, Organizations can launch initiatives such as a two-way mentoring programme because of age diversity in the workplace. This has several advantages. Experienced employees can teach their less experienced colleagues everything they know, and vice versa.
This type of mentoring can ensure the transfer of important skills. So, when older employees retire, you'll have a group of younger employees who have learned from the best and are ready to take over. You've now ensured business continuity as well as smart succession planning.
5. Age diversity teaches us about healthy intergenerational dynamics
The Intern is a movie about work, the workplace, and intergenerational dynamics. But the movie also displays all the trademarks of a classic Hollywood film: a general level of reasonable family-friendliness, sharp scripting and production, and a talented balance of humour and everyday, relatable human depth. So, it shows a light play on the obvious challenges and conflicts that might arise from a sort of these intergenerational exchanges or intergenerational kind of dynamics in the workplace.
Typically, having an intergenerational workforce would lead to clashes between factions. The workplace now has at least four generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Managing a multigenerational workforce with diverse perspectives, experiences, values, and goals presents a unique organisational challenge for company leaders, managers, and human resource professionals.
The cure to create healthy intergenerational dynamics for age diversity in the workplace is by dismantling stereotypes. Stereotyping is a symptom of discrimination. It is critical to treat people equally, but not necessarily in the same way. The key to effectively managing generational differences is self-awareness.
Managers must be aware of their own beliefs, values, and work attitudes, and recognise that these may differ from those of the people they manage. Leaders must be self-aware to ensure that their own biases do not skew how work is distributed and the sort of culture that is created.