Karan Dhirar, a trainer with Multivision, assists fellow employee Al Terrell, who is studying software development. The Fairfax company has started a program to retrain long-time workers. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

The economic forces reshaping the global economy are prompting many local companies to pay new attention to an often overlooked form of diversity: The age of their workers.

Since 1980, the median age of American workers has been steadily increasing, as the flood of Baby Boomers who entered the workforce in the ’60s and ’70s remain in their jobs.

Some companies are finding the skills of those older workers don’t always match the demands of the modern marketplace. For instance, as companies try to integrate social media and digital advances into their operations, their recruitment efforts often lead them to hire younger workers.

Keeping younger and older workers on board was relatively easy to do when the times were good. But as the economy slowed in recent years, it has become more difficult for companies to maintain the right blend.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Washington field office reported this year that the number of age-related discrimination charges filed has jumped from 160 in fiscal 2002 to 372 in fiscal 2011, after hitting 414 in 2008.

Brian Connolly leads a class in computer software development at Multivision. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

It’s common for cases to increase when the economy sours, often because of complaints that companies are pushing out older workers and retaining younger ones. Firms at times weigh cutting older workers in hopes of helping their bottom lines because long-time staff members often command higher salaries.

“First of all it’s illegal, and secondly it’s bad business practice because if you eliminate your more experienced workers you lose an awful lot of knowledge and ability,” said Robert R. Niccolini, who is based in Ogletree Deakins’ D.C. office and specializes in employment litigation.

Even companies that play by the rules can find it difficult to navigate the changing demographics of the labor force in the current economy. Young job hunters can find it difficult to break into industries where openings are scarce.

The workforce has aged significantly over the past several decades. The median age of the employed dipped to its lowest point in the past 60 years around 1980 at 35.3 years — most likely related to Baby Boomers settling in the workforce — but has been rapidly rising since, hitting 42 in 2010, according to data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The age gap can be more pronounced at the executive level. BLS data shows that the median age of the 1.5 million chief executives included in its 2010 survey hit 51.6, up from 46.7 in 2000.

Seeking a mix

Balancing a workforce can be difficult even for firms with a predominance of young workers. Some, such as those specializing in rapidly evolving industries such as information technology, can struggle to find veteran talent.

Take Fairfax-based Multivision, whose workforce has always skewed young. Close to half of its nearly 275 employees are between the ages of 31 and 35, and as of three years ago, the company had only one employee over the age of 50.

The company has started a program to retrain long-time workers, many of whom had other technology-related careers or specialize in outdated programs, in order to benefit from their broader experiences.

“You can’t train or teach leadership, you can’t train or teach maturity,” said Bobby Toe, Multivision’s vice president for strategic partnerships, of the benefits of attracting older employees.

For Brian Connolly, himself a veteran at age 49, the idea of getting into IT seemed like a long shot. A former radar engineer, he entered Multivision’s program about a year ago and now works there as a training and development specialist, training other people.

Generations often have different work styles, potentially creating workplace tension.

Diane Thielfoldt, co-founder of talent development business the Learning Cafe, said the sizeable Baby Boomer generation — made up of those born between 1946 and 1964 — typically define themselves by their work. Members of Generation X, which is only about half the size and includes those born between 1965 and 1981, “work to live,” as opposed to Boomers who “live to work.”

Millennials, those born between 1982 and 1999, often take a “lifestyle workstyle” approach that blurs the lines between their personal lives and their career and tend to be more detached from their employers.

Additionally, older workers who remain in their jobs can throw the promotion process into chaos and frustrate lower-level workers who want to advance, said Robert W. Wendover, managing director of the Center for Generational Studies.

“That obviously has a cascading effect all the way down,” he said, adding that employers may have to adjust their pension or benefits processes to encourage more career movement.

New ideas

Employers are taking a variety of approaches to manage age-related differences.

National tax, audit and advisory firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Atlanta office, for example, set up a “reverse mentoring” program that pairs younger employees with older ones after realizing that the average age of the office was 27 but the leadership was much older.

“I think the concept of turning the ... typical mentoring relationship ... upside down is one that has intrinsic value,” said Gary Price, a partner in the company’s advisory line of service. “You immediately [say] to a younger person, ‘You’re responsible for this relationship, you set up the meetings.’ ... [It] provides an engagement level that otherwise wouldn’t exist.”

Now, Price, who has a mentor that is closer in age to his son, said he is receiving inquiries from many of the company’s other offices.

The Agriculture Department is working with the National Older Worker Career Center to encourage people 55 and older — many of them retired federal employees — to come back to work on a specific project or be a temporary or part-time worker.

Joel Reaser, senior vice president at the Arlington-based center, said the program benefits older people who don’t want a full-time job but still have experience and knowledge as well as a government agency that’s facing an impending wave of retirements.

The effort is “not just a nice thing to do for old people,” said Reaser. “It’s absolutely critical that all employers, including the federal government, learn how to ... retain [employees] further into their lives, extending their work lives and finding creative ways to bring them back.”