Multiple Generations: Perceptions & Problems 

By  Henry Rose Lee

Multiple Generations at Work

(#3 in the series, read #2 here)

If you’re employing multiple generations at work, then you’ll already have met some challenges.

A few of your older workers may not like the communication style or work approach of some of your younger workers.

And some of your youngest employees may struggle with what they see as the lack of interest and impetus in encouraging innovation or the use of new technologies in the company.

But what’s really going on? Is it true that older staff can no longer innovate, and younger staff can no longer communicate?

Course not! It’s not that simple. But there are differences between every generation at work.

Think of it this way. If person A is being brought up in a different country, with a different language, culture or set of beliefs, from person B, both may struggle to understand each other – literally.

A different generation speaks a different language

Being in a different generation from another worker, is a bit like a French person trying to communicate with someone from Japan.

Yes, both people are human, but the way they communicate, interact and work may be very different. (It’s my belief that cultural differences are huge across all nations in the world, but I’m not writing about that.)

However, if you put a Baby Boomer (aged mid-50s to mid-70s) next to a Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2009), you might notice that there are times when each person thinks the other one is on a different planet.

Let’s explore Multiple Generations and Differences

Examining the differences between every generation in today’s workplace is really the meat and two veg of generational theory. And there are soooo many differences. But let’s simplify across two key areas: communication and working practices.

Multiple Generations: Perceptions & ProblemsCommunication & Working Practice for the Silent Generation

If you’re a Silent (born between 1925 & 1945) still at work, you’re a formal communicator – whether you are an employee or an employer. Your whole working life can be typified by being disciplined, prepared, organised and hard-working.

If you’re a still working Silent male, (chances are 95% if you are), you’re used to turning up to work in shoes with laces – not trainers or slip-on deck shoes, or flip flops. And there’s one hell of a shine on your shoes.

It’s likely that you’re used to accepting authority as absolute. The manager says “jump” and you say, “how high?”

At work, your preferred communications will include letters, memos and email, but you probably still prefer face-to-face and the telephone.

You’re an accomplished and fluent communicator and the chances are you spell well, use reasonably good grammar, and write in a legible hand. You’re probably also used to a more fixed working pattern where – unless you’re on shift work – it’s usually 9 am to 5 pm, with most weekends off.

Multiple Generations: Perceptions & ProblemsCommunication & Working Practice for Baby Boomers

If you’re a Baby Boomer (born between 1946 to 1964), you’ve been brought up by a disciplinarian parent and some of that conditioning has stuck.

But you’ve also benefited in the UK from free NHS, free university tuition and increasing job opportunities.

If you’re in the US, you’ve benefited from the massive increase in infrastructure, manufacturing, IT and media – a full-on boom during and after WWII.

Boomers across most of Western Europe and North America are the real generation of never-had-it-so-good. True, you’ve been very good at saving, and you’ve paid a lot more in taxes than younger generations across the years.

But a lot of you have also amassed wealth or financial stability through saving diligently and by increasing your earnings over time, and by making money on property ownership.

And you sometimes look like a softer version of a Silent worker; still occasionally formal in some ways, but more likely to embrace new tech – if it makes sense.

WhatsApp is as useful to you as it is to any other younger generation, although, you too, will be a good face-to-face communicator, with excellent skills for using the telephone and email or text.

You may or may not accept or like flexible working or work/life balance but at least you know what they both are. And you know others want them.

You’ll use texting, emails, word (Microsoft rather than Apple, unless you’re in graphic design or in media or entertainment), and you’ll also use PowerPoint and Excel at work.

Multiple Generations: Perceptions & Problems

Communication & Working Practice for Gen X

If you’re a Gen X (born between 1965 to 1980), you’ve broken away from the Silent/Boomer ways of working.

From the day you first started work computers were around, as were mobile phones, even if there was only one computer in your office and it was enormous, and every phone was the size of a brick!

Computers and mobiles get smaller and faster and cleverer every year, but you were around when these things were just starting up.

As a Gen X-er, you’ve already got one foot in the technology of today and the other foot in the formality and more hierarchical working practices of older Boomers and Silent. But it’s easy to mistake many Gen X for Millennials because you may look like, walk like and talk like them.

There are differences though.

As a Gen X-er, you’ve experienced boom and bust in the workplace. That final salary pension you were offered when you first started work, is now a thing of the past for you, even if you embrace new Apps and new ways of working. And because you’re older than Millennials, you’ll feel squeezed between young children and older relatives – who both look to you for financial support.

You’ll use everything a Boomer uses. And you’ll also be more likely to embrace any new tech that comes along in the workplace – if it’s useful and makes sense. Fun tech is for home.

Multiple Generations: Perceptions & ProblemsCommunication & Working Practice for Millennials

If you’re a Millennial (1981 to 1996), you’ve always had tech in your world, even if the oldest of you didn’t get a mobile phone until your late teens.

New tech is your thing.

You have little time for filing cabinets, or hand-written memos.

What you have to say is going to be put out there in the ether.

You may not remember the last time you wrote a report with a pen and paper. You may well type with two fingers, or two thumbs but it’s fast enough. In fact, your fingers are strong, fast, and responsive on an iPad or smartphone keypad.

Unfortunately, FOMO (fear of missing out) and Nomophobia (fear of being without your phone) are constant companions.

You probably don’t have a landline in the place where you live, (unless you’re still living with your parents), and your favourite comms are texting, direct messaging, and WhatsApp.

You like Instagram too – and prefer it to Facebook. In fact, for many Millennials, Facebook is really lame; and anyway, your parents are on it, so that’s just not cool!

Yes, you still do email, but you find it annoying and long-winded, unless it’s for connecting with brands or getting offers and vouchers.

As for work-life balance and flexible working, they’re your golden rights in your job today.

Multiple Generations: Perceptions & Problems

Communications & Working Practice for Gen Z

If you’re a Generation Z at work (1997 to 2009), you’ve only just come into today’s workplace.

You’ve grown up with the internet and you’ve lived every milestone, achievement, and life event on social media.

If you want to learn something, you’ll probably look it up on YouTube.

You like to run your own learning, in your own way, at your own pace.

If you do use email it’s likely to be because that’s what’s in use at work.

You may also see email as a way to access brands and vouchers and you’re very susceptible to internet influencers and online ads.

As for working effectively, you don’t like to sit still for ages in a meeting, because that’s simply a waste of precious working time and energy.

Differences Matter!

In themselves, these differences between generations may appear minor. But in practice, if you’re a Millennial or a Gen Z, you’ve never seen a rotary phone. You’ve never had to wait MINUTES for a screen to appear. You have a different attitude when things go wrong, or delays slow you down.

If you’re a Baby Boomer, you’re used to having instruction leaflets inside the box of any new electronic gadget, or DIY package. So, you’re going to be disappointed to learn that many gadgets on sale today are considered “intuitive”. That means you must work out what to do by trial, error, and experimentation, or watch the how-to, video online.

So, what does all this mean to employers? Does every generation need to be treated completely differently? No! Of course not. If you do that, you’ll end up making a huge amount of work for yourself and you’re bound to piss off one generation or another.

The good news: All Generations Can Embrace Technology

Think about how different generations felt when the first cars were invented and started pootling about our roads. Older people said they wanted to continue walking or riding horses. Some said the car was the devil’s work. But the car won through and is now widely adopted.

It’s the same with any new invention or technology. Most of them will take some time to bed into our workplaces and our society. But they do eventually get adopted. So, if you think about all the forms of technology at work, including artificial intelligence, robotics, and digitization, you know that tech-acceptance is on its way.

And, as we’re in the 2020s, we can see that older generations are fast adopting new ways of living and working. For example, YouTube, (owned by Alphabet – which is itself a part of Google), have indicated that the fastest growing user segment for them is the Baby Boomers and Generation X segment – check out YouTube Demographics.

In addition, Boomers are also the fastest growing segment for adopting shopping online – check out The 3 Most Effective Ways to Reach Baby Boomers.

According to a study by DMN3, 96% of baby boomers use search engines, 95% use email, and 92% shop for products and services online rather than shopping in stores and shopping malls. Post COVID-19, online adoption, usage and purchasing, will only increase.

This means that whatever our age, we’re embracing the readily available technology and apps.

What can you take away from this?

Takeaway #1

Find the things inside your organisation where there are clear generational differences.

For example, many accountancy and law firms and other professional services employers are finding that their youngest employees may have quite poor social skills. These include:

  • writing
  • face-to-face presentations
  • contributions at meetings
  • and also when pitching ideas.

After all, this youngest talent has connected far more with text speak, emojis and online interactions than older generations.

The art of social presentation and the “right words at the right time” have not been something they’ve had to concentrate on very much, prior to joining the workplace. The benefits of instant access via social media have not helped Millennials and Gen Z to communicate in the way that some older accountancy or legal clients might expect.

So these new or younger hires need to be given business communication skills. In other words, they need to learn how to interact and talk to their clients, suppliers and senior colleagues. Nothing’s bad or wrong – it’s simply a new language for them to learn.

Takeaway #2

To avoid an “us and them” mentality, enlightened employers find ways to connect older and younger generations.

In media, sales, marketing, and retail companies, that might be achieved by buddying an older, more experienced worker, with a younger worker.

Encourage older and younger to work together, on a project, or a client request, or a pitch, presentation, or negotiation.

Share out tasks and learn from each other’s style and ideas. Some organisations call this “a dream team”, where younger and older bond over a shared goal (make the deal, save the money, deliver the project etc.). They both also recognise key yet differing attitudes and skills in each other.

Takeaway #3

Encourage the spirit of “we’re all in this together” in your company – by using mentoring.

Most organisations are keen to have their older, more experienced employees mentoring their younger, high-potential workers. That’s fine. Please keep on doing that. However, do add in reverse mentoring.

This is where younger staff mentor older more experienced staff. I encourage many boards of directors and senior leadership teams to choose a mentor from their youngest employees. These young mentors explain the attitudes and habits of younger workers and consumers. They share the merits of any new tech or digital apps, innovations or processes that are usually being accessed by people who are below the age of 25. It’s a perfect pairing. Older workers teach younger ones about all the things they don’t know about.

Given they’ve had so little experience of any workplace, the list could be long. Younger workers teach older workers about new innovations and new technologies. They teach them about more flexible ways of thinking, buying, selling, communicating, and working. All parties benefit, and generational differences are embraced as interesting and valuable.

Ok, that’s the good news. But – as the song goes – change is a-coming.

Work is going to evolve. And how?

Old job roles will disappear. New job roles will arrive. So how can each generation benefit from the tsunami of changes that will fuel the post-COVID-19 job revolution? And how does each generation cope with the demands of work today.

If you want to start with Millennials, then read my article How Millennials are changing the Workplace.

About the author

Henry Rose Lee

Henry is a recognised authority on Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers in the workplace. She helps businesses to recruit, engage and retain their younger employees, and helps individuals to ignite their talents and carve out an outstanding career, whatever their age.

Through her keynote speeches, workshops and coaching, you will understand the evolution of leadership in what is sometimes called ‘the Shift Age’, so you can avoid common pitfalls and help your organisation (and yourself) to thrive.

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