We’re at a unique point in history, where (thanks to demographics and fiscal pressures) it’s possible to find up to five different generations working together in a single office. The generation gap is hardly a new problem. The phrase itself has been in use since the 1920s, and the hallmarks have remained the same all along. Older generations tend to condemn younger ones as ignorant, feckless and selfish, while the youth view their elders as resistant to change, stiflingly formal and occasionally obstructive.
Generational issues in the workplace can have a serious effect on productivity, profitability and general quality of life for everyone. Where do we see the biggest clashes, and what can we do to bridge the generation gap in the workplace?
Multiple generations in the workplace
Not only are there more generations working together than at any previous time, the “flattening” of organizations means that a lack of hierarchy has broken down the old segregation of seniority, and people of different generations spend much more time together at work than ever before. So who are these people and what do they bring to work with them? Defining generations is a tricky and inexact science. Give or take a few years, the generations working today are:
The Silent Generation, born 1925–1945
95% of this generation has retired by now, but their influence still reigns in many corporate cultures. Raised in a time of scarcity, these folks are accustomed to lifetime tenure, respect for authority, rigid discipline and deep company loyalty.
The Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964
This generation came of age in prosperity, when hard work and dedication were amply rewarded by The Silent Generation leaders of the day. In turn, the Boomers have an optimistic and enthusiastic attitude towards their career. Personal growth and the struggle for work/life balance has been a priority for this generation. Currently, they make up 41% of the workforce but hold most of the leadership positions. As this generation ages and retires, a labor shortage looms: for every 2 people leaving the workforce, only 1 is entering.
Generation X, born 1965–1977
Loudly decried as “slackers” in their youth, Generation X nonetheless led the way for a boom of entrepreneurship, especially in the tech realms. Having witnessed several crashes and waves of layoffs in their careers, they tend to prefer freedom and personal agency to old ideals of corporate loyalty. Savvy about the media and technology, and willing to embrace risk, this generation has no hesitation jumping from job to job.
Generation Y (Millennials), born 1978–1989
The most diverse generational group in the workforce today, Millennials have braved waves of headlines calling them entitled, lazy and dependent. In fact, numbers show that they are uniquely altruistic and idealistic: they volunteer more than any previous American generation. Steeped in technology since childhood, with a truly global perspective, they have watched their parents’ careers blighted by cutbacks and financial crises. Deeply motivated to feel a part of something important, this generation is happy to challenge conventions of what a career should look like.
Generation Z (Post-Millennials), born 1990–2000
The oldest members of this cohort are just out of college and are showing up as your summer interns and in entry-level positions. Their most formative years were shaped by war and financial collapse, but at the same time they have had the immense benefit of a hyper-connected world and unprecedented access to information and avenues of self-expression. They are both wary of the promises of employment and driven to work hard for security. A high intensity of personal engagement and transparency during short-term, renewable connections is their preferred way to engage with the working world.
Challenges, communication, and community
Like most issues in the office, the frictions of generational gaps generally show up in one of two ways: negative stereotypes and miscommunications. One generation’s opinion of the other can block real progress.
Older, traditional team members must not be allowed to smother the fresh new ideas of younger, progressive colleagues, but at the same time, the enthusiasm of unseasoned workers must be guided by experience.
The informal communication style of Millennials who prefer text and instant messages to phone calls can read as disrespect or flakiness to older generations, while the younger cohorts find the endless in-person meetings preferred by their Boomer bosses an egregious waste of valuable time. Ironing out these differences is an ongoing task in any organization, but there are several things you can do to smooth the way:
Breakdown stereotypes with icebreakers and teambuilding
Like many things in human relationships, building a sense of community and closeness is the best way to help team members see past differences, gain understanding and foster trust. Scheduling regular time together for new, different and challenging activities is vitally important.
Another way to bridge the generation gap is to set aside time during a company meeting or retreat to have coworkers come together to solve a problem that impacts the entire team. Set up workstations with snacks and strategically create groups of employees from a mix of age ranges. This will expose employees to a multitude of vantage points and offer a more well-rounded approach to problem solving.
Formalize mentoring within the organization
The mentor relationship has huge benefits for everyone involved. The invaluable experiential knowledge base of older generations is passed on to future leaders, younger employees are heard, encouraged and supported, and both parties build mutual respect and admiration.
Be an evangelist for mobile working options
Working from home is one of the most motivating options a company can provide for its employees, and it is applicable across all age groups. Generations Z and Y enjoy the autonomy, Generation X (many of whom are raising families) appreciate the flexibility and it may keep Boomers (who may be thinking about retirement) around longer. It demonstrates trust, raises productivity and morale and the inclusion of technology levels the playing field between generations (if older members need Skype coaching, have the intern hold a short seminar!).
Juggling the needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses of so many age groups in one office will never be simple, but with careful management, having so many generations in the workplace can be a tremendous asset rather than a liability.