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Bridge the Generation Gaps at Work

If you look around your workplace, chances are you’ll see people of many different ages representing several generations.

Sometimes, when co-workers have trouble getting along, the gaps or differences between their generations may be contributing to the problem. For example:

  • Matt, a generation Xer, is a manager of a home building company. George, a traditionalist, is a construction foreman who supervises several projects. Matt has tried everything he can think of to get George to send in his daily progress reports electronically. Most recently, he’s given George a smartphone. George feels he can write his reports faster and more accurately by hand. He drives them over to the main office by 5:30 p.m. each afternoon. “That’s great,” says Matt, “except I have to pick my kids up at daycare by 6 p.m.”  “Back in my day, the supervisor was the last to leave,” says George.
  • Deb, a baby boomer, and Brittany, a millenial, are co-workers whose supervisor has asked them to apply for the same promotion. 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. If I get the job done, should it matter when or where I do it?” asks Brittany. “Deb wants that promotion way too much. It’s like work is her whole life.” 

The people in these stories represent distinct generations that make up today’s Canadian workforce. Each generation was 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.

Whether you’re younger or older, it’s worth making the effort to understand your co-workers and the different generations they represent. Follow the suggestions for help in bridging generation gaps.

Who are you?

Figuring out which generation you belong to is a good place to start. Look at the following table to see where you fit in. How many of the descriptions ring true for you and for your co-workers of different ages? Keep in mind that every description may not apply to each individual.


You’re a…

Traditionalist, Silent Generation

Baby Boomer,

Generation X

Millennial, Generation Y, Gen Z
Gen Why?
Echo Boomer

If you were born…

before 1945

between 1946 and 1964

between 1964 and 1980

since 1980

You’re shaped by…

World War II,
the Depression,
traditional family

the Cold War,
student activism,
youth culture,
FLQ crisis,
space travel,
stay-at-home moms

the energy crisis,
technology’s first wave,
fall of the Berlin Wall,
music videos,
working mothers (latchkey kids),
rising divorce rates

explosion of technology and social media,
Columbine shootings,
variety of family structures

You value…


standing out,
hard work

work-life balance

strong leadership,
concern for community,
fair play,
diversity, individualism

On the job you are…

a disciplined, hard worker who appreciates order and a job well done

a driven, service-oriented team player who doesn’t want to be micromanaged. You live to work.

independent, self-reliant, unimpressed by authority and focused on self-development. You work to live.

self-confident, competent, optimistic, out-spoken and collaborative

Your career motto is…

Seek job security.

Education plus hard work equals success.

Invest in portable career skills.

Multi-track or die!

Look at the generation gaps

How do the differences between generations show up in the workplace? Check out the following examples.

Hours of work: Each generation tends to have a different approach to hours of work:

  • If you’re a traditionalist, you turn up when the supervisor says you should and work until the project is finished.
  • If you’re a boomer, you tend to work all the time. You come in early and stay late.
  • If you’re a gen-Xer, you work hard to complete projects but when you’re not needed, you want to be free to pursue your life outside of work.
  • If you’re a millennial, you see your job as something you do between weekends or between your other jobs.

Recognition and rewards: Each generation tends to value different kinds of recognition and rewards:

  • If you’re a traditionalist, you tend to prefer security, pensions, bonuses and recognition for a job well done.
  • If you’re a boomer, chances are you prefer promotion and increased income.
  • If you’re a gen-Xer, you tend to prefer time off rather than a bonus.
  • If you’re a millennial, you’re confident about your own abilities, value visibility and close interaction with leaders in the organization. You’d like to work on a top-level team doing a project you believe in.

Given these differences, it’s not surprising that veterans and boomers might resent or mistrust gen-Xers and millennials who flex their hours or seem to be away from the workplace a lot. On the other hand, gen-Xers and millennials may think veterans and boomers are inflexible, “married” to their jobs and unwilling to ask for what they need.

The gaps aren’t just between the older and younger generations—gen-Xers may find millennials’ desire for meaningful work and close relationship with an organization’s leaders unrealistic. And millennials may mistake gen-Xers’ casual attitude toward authority as disrespect for the leadership millennials value.

Close the generation gaps

Use the following suggestions to help you get along with co-workers of different generations:

  1. Be self-aware.
    Pay attention to your own beliefs and values.  Think about how people from different generations may view your behaviour. For example, boomers have had to work many long, hard hours in order to stand out among the huge numbers of their generation in the workforce. Gen-Xers and millennials may think that boomers don’t care about life outside of work because they are focusing on the boomers’ behaviour rather than the forces that shaped it.

    On the other hand, gen-Xers entered the workforce during a time when organizations were downsizing and restructuring. They’ve learned to rely on themselves and to place a high value on their life outside of work. Veterans and boomers who kept their jobs during the restructuring handled the situation by working harder. To them, gen-Xers may appear too focused on the “life” side of the work-life balance. 
  2. Keep an open mind.
    Challenge what you assume. For example, the veteran who wears a business suit and seems uncomfortable with technology may be highly creative. The gen-Xer who leaves early and files reports from home may not be out partying all night but may be sharing child care with a spouse.
  3. Focus on the goal.
    If everyone on the team does their share, it may not matter whether Veterans work at their desks during office hours, whether boomers work after hours, whether gen-Xers work at home on the weekend or whether millennials work on smartphones in cafés.
  4. Value diversity.
    Accept each generation’s different experiences and ways of seeing things. Veterans and boomers have the kind of experience that comes from years in the workforce—they really have seen it all. Gen-Xers and millennials can benefit from their experience.

    Gen-Xers have developed the skills to be independent and self-directed. Millennials learned their teamwork skills in daycare. Both have grown up working and playing with technology, from touch-screen tablets to social networking. Millennials and gen-Xers use all available technology effortlessly to work at any time, from anywhere. What may sometimes look like arrogance is more likely competence and confidence—veterans and boomers can benefit by recognizing the difference.
  5. Support and learn from each other.
    Co-workers from each generation have a lot to offer each other. For example, gen-Xers and millennials can share their technology skills with boomers and veterans. The older generations can mentor the younger. Each generation has something to contribute:
    • veterans’ loyalty
    • boomers’ dedication to a goal
    • gen-Xers’ work-life balance
    • millennials’ comfort with diversity
  6. Discover common interests.
    Sports, hobbies, films, favourite TV shows, volunteering—people from different generations may share more interests than they realize. What starts out as small talk in the coffee room can develop into an understanding of a different point of view or a chance to explore a new skill.

Bridge the generation gaps for a richer work experience

Traditionalists, boomers, gen-Xers and millennials all bring a wide range of skills, outlooks and experiences to the workplace. When generations recognize and respect their differences, they stay open to the opportunity to learn from each other.

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