Navigating the Generation Gap in the Workplace

by Sue Maden on May 27, 2014

Navigating the Generation Gap in the WorkplaceRegardless of age or generation, we all share the need for respect, trust and clear communication at work. Knowing that, is the generation gap in the workplace really that important? It is. Because while we all crave effective communication, respect and trust, what that looks like differs depending in large part on the generation into which we were born.

Today, we have four generations working side-by-side in the workplace. These individuals’ lives have been shaped by many influences and their workplace habits, preferences, communication styles and more are all very different. As supervisors, managers, HR pros and corporate trainers, part of our collective challenge is to try to understand these differences and develop strategies to effectively communicate, hire, inspire, lead and train across generations. That’s no small challenge, but it’s an exciting one!

Here’s a quick look at the generations in the workplace, and some of the key traits associated with their general outlook, work ethic, loyalty and relationship focus.

Traditionalists (1925-1945)

Often referred to as “The Silent Generation,” this group of about 35 million is personified by people who lived through difficult times and world events that affected their lives and their behavior in a big way. These formative times include the Great Depression, World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. This generation in the workforce is practical, dedicated and extremely loyal to an employer. It isn’t unusual for them to have one job for the duration of their careers.

Boomers (1946-1964)

Boomers are (for a little while longer anyway), the largest generation, numbering some 84 million. They were born post-war and at a time that was a good one, economically speaking. They came of age during a time of great change in society, witnessing events like the assassinations of public leaders (including a president), the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Boomers tend to be materialistic and measure success by position and financial success. They also place great value on their time. As employees, Boomers are generally optimistic, driven, loyal and seek instant gratification.

Gen X (1965-1981)
Gen-Xers have also weathered great change. Numbering about 68 million strong, they experienced two-income families and parents that divorced — major changes in society and the workplace environment. Gen-Xers tend to be practical, self-sufficient and are usually fairly commitment-focused and loyal when it comes to a career. They are occasionally a bit skeptical and place great value on work-life balance.

Millennials (1982-2000)

The definition of Millennials changes depending on who you ask — some extend the start year to 1977 — but many characterize this huge group of about 80 million “Gen Y.” Its members are often personified by their hopeful outlook and determination. The largest generation since the Boomers, the Millennials are changing everything — including the workplace. There’s not another living group that has weathered as much financial turmoil as this one, including student loan debt, poverty, recession and unemployment. This is likely why the “sharing economy,” which focuses on swapping, borrowing and crowdsourcing, has emerged. Millennials are different from their predecessors. They’re interested in corporate culture and social responsibility, focused on work-life balance and are, naturally, a digital-first group of tech-savvy people. They are an adventuresome bunch and are also likely to move around more during their careers than the generations before them. For employers, understanding what motivates and inspires them, then providing those experiences and opportunities — changing things up — is partly how you can work with your Millennial work force.

The factors that make up how we view life or how we respond to it are shaped by the generation into which we were born. Formative events such as Pearl Harbor for the Traditionalists, the civil rights movement for the Boomers, the Vietnam War for Gen X, 9/11 and a recession for Millennials, all affect our world view and how we connect with the world around us. Other factors like geography and socioeconomics have an impact, too, which is why we sometimes identify with more than just the generation we’re born into.

Take communication style. If you’re a Millennial, your communication style is probably mostly positive and goal–focused; you tend to prefer electronic communication. Gen Xers communicate candidly and avoid jargon (and want others to as well). Baby Boomers want to be treated as equals and regularly look for agreement opportunities when communicating. And Traditionalists typically prefer giving and receiving background info, establishing policies and knowing who’s who.

As a leader of a team or manager, think about the personalities and communication preferences at work within your group. It’s definitely more work, but it will help you develop and employ appropriate tactics for diverse team members, instead of employing a “one size fits all” communication strategy. This will likely not only make everyone on the team happier in the work environment, it will help them be more productive and more satisfied with their careers.

Does this stuff fascinate you like it does me? If you’re interested in learning more about the four generations in the workforce and how to more effectively bridge the communication gap, there’s a terrific presentation by Melissa Sherrod, called Generational Differences: Communication Preferences, that I think you’ll really like.

What about what’s happening where you work? What do you see? How are you adapting to meet communication preferences among the generations on your staff? I’d love to hear your feedback.

Sue Maden is Education & Training Manager for Burns & McDonnell. She oversees Burns & McDonnell University, providing professional growth and development to move employees’ careers forward. Sue creates resources for instructors to improve the course development process, simplifies access to learning for employees and looks for ways to increase benefits of collaboration and informal learning at Burns & McDonnell.

Other posts you might enjoy:

Business Insider: Here Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Millennials, Gen X And Boomers

The Burns & McDonnell Careers Blog: StrengthsFinder Assessment: Put Your Strengths to Work

photo credit: Knoll Inc via photopin cc


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