Bridging the Generation Gap

From baby boomers to Generation Y, a mix of generations can create workplace tensions — as well as opportunities.

It’s not uncommon these days for workplaces to include three distinct generations of employees rubbing elbows in cubicles, offices and meeting rooms nationwide: baby boomers (born from 1948 to 1963), Generation Xers (1964 to 1978) and Generation Yers (also known as millennials, 1979 to 1991). As if this unprecedented mix of age groups isn’t enough, the next cohort — already dubbed Generation Z — is preparing to enter the workforce, too.

The upshot of this mosh pit of generations is very disparate views on communication styles, workplace protocols, life/work balance, best-management practices and a host of other issues fraught with potential for tension and misunderstandings. Some employees favor old-fashioned face-to-face meetings to communicate, while others shun them in favor of texts and emails, for example. Older workers usually prefer following well-established chain-of-command hierarchies, while younger ones have no problem with going directly to their manager’s supervisor for help. In other cases, younger employees want the kinds of perks — like flexible work schedules and quick promotions — that older workers earned only after years on the job, which breeds resentment and its close cousin, jealousy.

In addition, general stereotypes commonly held by each of these cohorts — millennials are self-entitled and technology-obsessed, for instance, while boomers are stubbornly resistant to change and unwilling to learn new things — add even more fuel to the fire. As such, it’s no wonder that managers these days often feel like interpreters on the construction site of the Tower of Babel, toiling to calm this roiling mass of conflicting “languages” (perceptions, miscommunications and work styles) and get everyone working together toward common goals.

“A lot of companies and organizations are struggling with this,” says Dana Brownlee, the owner of Professionalism Matters (, a corporate-training consulting firm. “It’s all about different perspectives and paradigms that tend to create disconnects.”

So does fixing these generation gaps fall under the category of mission impossible? Not at all, says Brownlee, who has more than 20 years of corporate-training experience.

“The main thing I suggest is don’t hide from it — don’t pretend that these issues don’t exist,” she explains. “You need to get things out in the open and talk about them. … Give each group opportunities to shine. Proactively talk about their differences so they’re not hidden away and people only whisper about them in break rooms.”

One key to breaking down barriers is understanding why employees from various generations have different preferences for things, such as communication methods. Truth be told, the more efficient a method of communication is (texting for example), the less effective it can be. “A text or email, for instance, is fast, but it can sound blunt even though the sender didn’t intend to be blunt,” says Brownlee. And conversely, the more effective the mode of communication, the less efficient it is (such as more time-consuming face-to-face meetings), though the content is generally richer, she notes.

Furthermore, younger employees who aren’t used to verbal communication often associate a visit from a manager for a face-to-face talk as an escalation of an issue, when in fact it’s just the manager’s preferred method of communicating. Nonetheless, since people typically default to their preferred method of communicating, it helps to understand not only what communication methods employees prefer, but why they prefer them. That creates context, which helps avoid misunderstandings, she notes.

Relationship-building is also important because weak relationships promote weak communication. To foster such relationships, managers should proactively break up cliques and put employees from different generations on the same teams, starting with non-work-related projects, such as a team lunch or a birthday celebration. “If you promote relationships between people who don’t normally interact, they develop a more comfortable cocoon where they can ask questions and be more honest about things,” Brownlee points out. “Then the barriers start to come down.”

It’s also important for employees to fully understand the unspoken expectations and protocols that make up the corporate cultures in which they work. That could include everything from how employees dress to never talking to your boss’s boss about problems until you’ve first spoken to your boss, Brownlee says. “As an example, maybe you develop ground rules for meetings,” she suggests. “No meetings on Fridays after noon and any meeting longer than two hours must include food. Meetings longer than three hours need to also include beer.”

Other examples can include avoiding the use of all capital letters or exclamation points in emails or asking for permission to take a day off at least three days in advance. “Try to steer people toward behaviors that are more palatable to everyone,” she advises. “Any time you can be more explicit about expectations, it removes the potential for tension and conflict.”

For older employees, job training can ease fears and anxiety about new technologies and ideas. That’s helpful in instances where there’s a generational divide in how employees work to achieve the same goal. For example, a team assigned to perform customer surveys may be split between younger employees who prefer to use newer tools, such as SurveyMonkey, and older employees who’d rather stick with focus groups. “There’s a good chance the older employees will shut down because they’re now moving into a space where they no longer feel comfortable,” she observes. “That can be a big deal … a huge barrier.”

But in the end, a multi-generational workplace doesn’t always have to be a hotbed of dissent. In fact, diverse perspectives and viewpoints can make organizations stronger.

“Sure, it’s easier to manage a homogenous group,” Brownlee explains. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll get the best product or service. You’re always better off with a more diverse team working on a project. It just requires more communication and a more proactive approach to ensure everyone can work together harmoniously.”

In addition, older employees can provide younger, less-experienced employees with valuable perspectives and insights about how the industries in which they work have changed over the years, or how customer bases have evolved. They can also offer advice about the best ways to successfully approach various employees about assorted issues. Conversely, younger employees can help older workers feel more comfortable with new technologies and ideas. “There’s tons of information to share on either end of the generational spectrum,” Brownlee says. “In most cases, diversity is a great thing.”


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