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Bridge the Generation Gaps at Work

Right now, 6 generations co-exist on the planet. That’s a new normal. People are living longer than ever, and multiple generations are stacking up.

Here’s a breakdown of all 6 generational titles and the time periods they cover:

  • Traditionalists: born before 1945
  • Baby boomers: 1945–1964
  • Generation X: 1965–1980
  • Millennials: 1981–1995
  • Generation Z: 1996–2009
  • Alpha generation: born 2010 and later

With such a large number of age ranges eligible to work, staff in some workplaces could easily be made up by 4 generations—or even as many as many as 5.

Today’s workforce is multi-generational

A workplace where people from different generations work side by side can prove rich in experience, skills, productivity, and innovation. It can also lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

That’s because each generation has been shaped by a different set of experiences and, as a result, has a certain set of values. One generation may not understand why another’s values seem to be so different.

Consider the following examples:

Matt, a generation Xer, is a manager of a home building company. George, a baby boomer, is a construction foreman who supervises several projects. Matt has tried everything that he can think of to get George to send in his daily progress reports electronically via his company-provided cellphone. George feels he can write his reports faster and more accurately by hand. He diligently drives them over to the main office for 5:30 p.m. every day. “That’s great,” says Matt, “except I have to pick up my kids at daycare by 6 p.m.”  “Back in my day,” says George, “the supervisor was the last to leave.”

Deb, a baby boomer, and Brittany, a millennial, are co-workers whose supervisor has invited them to apply for an advanced position in the company. Deb is surprised that Brittany is even being considered for the job. “She’s almost never in on time and she’s always leaving early,” complains Deb. “She missed the last team building weekend because she was performing in a play.” “I do a lot of work from home,” explains Brittany. “If I get the job done, why should it matter when or where I do it? Deb wants that promotion way too much. It’s like work is her whole life.” 

Whether you’re younger or older, it’s worth making the effort to understand the different generations and what they broadly represent. We can all do with a little less judgement and a little more consideration.

Seek to understand, but don’t label

When you consider your co-workers in light of their generation, be careful not to stereotype. We are all individuals capable of defying expectations. There is every bit as much diversity within each generation as there is between them.

That message might hit home when you think about where you fit in along the generational spectrum—and how.

What makes the different generations different?

At some level, we are each a product of the times and the environment we live in. The way we see things is influenced by what’s happening around us: in our homes, in our social circles, in the news, with the economy.

Here are some of the defining characteristics of each generation:

Traditionalists (born before 1945)

  • Historical setting: World War II and the Great Depression
  • Economy: lean, hungry and frugal
  • Values: family, hard work, respect, frugality, willpower, loyalty, tenacity
  • Motto: Seek job security

Baby boomers (1945–1964)

  • Historical setting: Postwar recovery, surge in birth rate, Cold War, social activism, feminism
  • Economy: strong economic outlook
  • Values: family, ambition, recognition and reward, competition, independence, hard work, financial security—live to work
  • Motto: Education plus effort equals success

Generation X (1965–1980)

  • Historical setting: space travel, energy crisis, Berlin Wall falls, AIDs, first wave of technology, music videos, rise in divorce rates, latchkey kids
  • Economy: stable jobs, dual income families, single parent households
  • Values: independence, self-reliance, adaptability, work-life balance—work to live
  • Motto: invest in portable career skills

Millennials (1981–1995)

  • Historical setting: first digital natives, video games, global media, climate change
  • Economy: global recession
  • Values: family, confidence, ambition, teamwork, efficiency, environmental stewardship, curiosity, life beyond work
  • Motto: Multi-track or die

Generation Z (1996–2009)

  • Historical setting: 9/11, Rodney King riots, Columbine shootings, social unrest, born in the digital age, raised on the internet and social media, smart phones, climate change, a global pandemic
  • Economy: high inflation, expensive housing, high unemployment rates, gig economy
  • Values: fair play, social justice, diversity, inclusion, environmental stewardship, flexibility, ambition, authenticity, volunteerism, purposeful life
  • Motto: I want to do meaningful work

Alpha Generation (2010–)

  • In development. This generation has not yet entered the workforce. We’ll have to wait and see what it looks like when they do.

How do generational differences show up at work?

When values and expectations differ between generations, there can be a gap in understanding. These gaps can reduce trust. It might appear that a team member doesn’t share the team’s goals. Or that someone isn’t working as hard as the rest of the team.

Misunderstandings can lead to judgment, which can lead to conflict. We saw this earlier with Matt and George, and again with Deb and Brittany. Consider these additional examples.

Hours of work: Generally speaking, each generation tends to have a different approach to hours of work.

  • A traditionalist will likely turn up when the supervisor says they should and work until the project is complete.
  • A baby boomer might be counted on to come in early and stay late. They tend to work all the time.
  • A generation Xer may be focused on completing their projects and, once they succeed, promptly move on to enjoy their outside life.
  • A millennial might consider their job something they do either between weekends or between their other jobs.
  • Someone from generation Z will likely want the freedom to work remotely, balancing their time with other priorities.

Recognition and rewards: Meaningful recognition can differ quite a lot between generations. Generally speaking:

  • A traditionalist might look to a combination of job security, pensions, and bonuses as evidence of a job well done.
  • A baby boomer will often most appreciate a promotion and pay raise.
  • A generation Xer will likely take paid time off over a bonus offering.
  • A millennial values visibility. Having senior leadership recognize them for their contributions by inviting them to work on a top-tier team doing a project that is meaningful—that could be perfect.
  • Someone from generation Z would probably most appreciate a sense of job security and a raise in their pay cheques.

There are loads of other workplace situations where the generation gap can show up. How and with whom we communicate at work will differ from generation to generation. So will how we might conduct research, manage risk, and manage conflict itself.

How you can bridge the generation gaps at work

Getting along with co-workers of different generations can be a challenge, but here are a few strategies that can help.

  1. Be self-aware. Pay attention to your own beliefs and values. Think about how people from different generations may view your behaviour. Remember, your way of thinking and behaving is largely a product of the social and environmental factors of your time. Trust that the same is true for others, and make an effort to understand where they might be coming from.
  2. Keep an open mind. Challenge your assumptions. For example, the traditionalist who wears a business suit and struggles with technology may be highly creative. The Generation Xer who leaves early and files reports from home may be taking care of aging parents.
  3. Focus on the goal. If everyone on the team does their share, it may not matter whether the work is being performed at their desks during office hours, after hours, at home on the weekend, or on laptops in cafés.
  4. Value diversity. Accept each generation’s differences. Traditionalists and boomers have the kind of hard-earned experience that comes from many years in the workforce. Generation Xers have developed skills to be independent and self-directed. Millennials and Generations Zs started working on their teamwork skills in daycare. For the younger generations, working and playing with technology is second nature. What may sometimes look like arrogance is more likely competence and confidence.
  5. Support and learn from each other. Every generation has a lot to gain from the others. Older employees can lean on their younger colleagues for valuable lessons in trends and technology. Younger generations can benefit from a free download of experiential know-how and timeless expertise.
  6. Discover common interests. Sports, hobbies, movies, travel, social causes—people from different generations may share more interests than they realize. Casual conversation can spark interest, understanding, validation, collaboration—and happiness.

Do your best to get along

Working alongside multiple generations can be as enriching as it is challenging. Do what you can to learn from your older and younger co-workers, and keep an open mind. If you can show up at your multi-generational workplace with a positive attitude, you’ll do just fine.

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