Bridging the generational gap

The modern workforce is anything but a homogeneous place. Employees are represented by a broad range of social backgrounds, philosophies and value systems. This can make managing a diverse group of people a unique challenge. In particular, the differences between the various generations are immense. They must be addressed if a company is to avoid internal strife and stress in the employee ranks. So they can promote an environment of open communication. Creating this type of workplace will most certainly facilitate efficient and productive work practices.

Too often, however, management will be comprised of one generation overseeing the younger generation.

Though this is a natural consequence of the older generations having garnered more experience, it’s not exactly the setup most suited to a good-natured and respectable mutual exchange of ideas between the generations. Sometimes an older worker, perhaps with many more years’ service with the organization will find himself working for a younger boss. While uncomfortable for some in this position, managing people has to begin somewhere. After all, today’s youngest generation of leaders will be consistently moving further into the organization’s management ranks.

That being the case, what can we do to address this situation? How can we help our leaders and managers master the intergenerational communication and challenges? How can they turn intergenerational differences into an asset instead of a liability?

First and foremost, we must look at the generations that make up the modern workplace environment. We can then identify the qualities and characteristics that each one exhibits the most strongly. In general, the generations can be divided into four major categories.

The first of these are the Traditionalists, also known as “Radio Babies”.

  • Employees from the traditionalist generation, born between 1930 and 1945, probably comprise the most invested members of your workforce. They were raised in a post-war environment that stressed the rebuilding of a country whose economy and production was still trying to get back on its feet. As such they tend to possess conservative values, are prudent with financial considerations, and perhaps above all, believe in the importance of loyalty to company and employer. They can also be the most resistant to change. But at the same time, this can become a valuable commodity as their combined patience, wisdom, and dedication to a decided course of action usually produces results of a consistently good quality. Perhaps the most important consideration to keep in mind when managing traditionalists is that many of them are of the age that they’re preparing to retire. If you don’t want to risk losing their talent early, you’ll need to continue to offer them competitive workplace advantages that speak to their specific needs and values. You also need to set up a systematic way of transferring their knowledge. Their “brain reserve” to the generations who will remain at the organization after this generation has retired.

The second, and by far the largest contingent of employees will fall into the “Baby Boomer” Generation.

  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, saw quite a few changes in the overall value structure of the traditionalists. With interests becoming increasingly global and a strong revival of emphasis on classical and worldly education, Baby Boomers tend to be among the most broadly educated employees in your company. As such, they’re accustomed to multi-tasking and to approaching the subject matter from a variety of paradigms.
  • The 1960’s saw the beginning of a trend towards self-actualization and fulfillment, meaning that the majority of Baby Boomers chose their careers based on their personal interests and passions. As a result, they’re likely to feel very strongly about their careers and employers they have chosen. Boomers can be quite ambitious in their areas of specialty. A mix of the traditionalist’s loyalty and work ethic, combined with the broad-minded ambition of the younger generations, and finally tempered by years of experience, Baby Boomers can be some of the most solid and perceptive members of teams, often excelling in management positions.

The third generation to consider is “Generation X”.

  • Often the children of productive and business-oriented Baby Boomer parents, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981, tend to offer the most independent workers. Extremely self-sufficient and capable of self-management, it’s often easy to overlook their achievements and contributions to a project next to the strength and presence of the older generations and the zealous ambition of Generation Y. With an increasing number of Baby Boomers approaching retirement age, however, understanding and make the best use of the talent of this generation is a critical issue to any management team. If Generation X is to become the new era of management, they will need to take steps to make their values work towards their company’s needs and foster team integration without making them feel alienated, unappreciated, or left out of the decision-making process.

The final generation in today’s lessons is Generation Y.

  • Typically the most ambitious and energetic of employees, Generation Y, born between 1982 and 1995, follows the trend begun with the Baby Boomers. These individuals value individual expression and competency above all else. Eager to establish themselves as individuals distinct from the rest of the workforce, they tend to “think outside of the box”, offering the most unorthodox suggestions and adopting the most daring business strategies. Though this can be disconcerting and somewhat frightening to members of older generations, this seemingly brazen skill set has been forged by the generation’s global consciousness. Of all the generations, they are the most aware of the differences between cultures, genders, and other aspects of diversity. Generation Y is the most likely to view their career as a personal cause, bringing a lot of loyalty and emotional involvement to the job, as long as their desire for personal fulfillment and development is properly addressed. That said, however, be careful not to “label” members of Generation Y. They often resent being lumped into a broad category, so you must remain sensitive to individual differences with this generation above all others. This generation was born into an era where customization was the norm, not an anomaly. They expect to be treated with the same view “one size does not fit all” and most certainly not for them!

Now that we have a little understanding of the generations, we should look at CrossGeneration Management.

Having recognized the critical importance that each generation has in the overall picture of our workplace, it is the responsibility of management to address the problems that are bound to arise. Leadership must make an effort to identify those barriers between the generations that are likely to be most problematic and invest resources in mitigating stressors with communication, efficient business practices, and effective management techniques. Here are some policies you can adopt to begin to narrow the generational gap in your workplace.

Above all, you must recognize that ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away.

Education is critical. Hold meetings for the sake of discussing and identifying the differences between the generations in a sensitive way. Representatives from each demographic can speak at these meetings. This will help make the other generations more aware of the differing perspectives that make up the organization. The first such meeting of this type is likely to be eye-opening for some or even shocking, especially if the passionate pleas or frustrations of the younger generations surface for the first time. But it’s important for the future of your organization that diversity of thought and adaptability to change be understood and appreciated. Over time, as a natural consequence of these continued meetings and intergenerational discussion, ideas will be put on the table to help foster better communication and performance between various generations.

Lead by example. As management, you’ll need to be even more perceptive of the differences between the generations than anyone else.

You must also display that you respect and understand those differences. Remember, however, that nothing speaks like results. In addition to presenting the behavior model that you’d like your employees to adopt, it’s important to demonstrate to them the concrete ways in which this attitude has helped to produce better results, foster more open and better communication, and provide the organization with the greater returns in areas such as hiring and retention.

Adopt creative ways to address the individual concerns of each generation in your workplace.

At the aforementioned meetings, listen to what each generation says it wants to receive. What do they want, in return for their loyalty and commitment? One easy way to implement changes to your overall business practice that appeal to multiple generations is with your benefits. Offer a variety of benefit packages instead of a one-size-fits-all solution that can never please everybody. For instance, traditionalists will enjoy benefits packages that address their impending retirement and also offer them an incentive to stay longer. Generation Y will be more attracted to investment opportunities that pay off over the long term and reward them for their continued involvement with the company.

Another topic to address is expanding your conception of workplace involvement. Members of the younger generations might be more attracted to ‘work at home’ type opportunities where they e-mail their contributions to projects. Older generations might find such a setup unappealing and inhibit their ability to relate and talk through issues with their co-workers. There should be room for both approaches in the modern workplace.

The generational gap is an inevitable consequence of working in a career-oriented environment.

As new generations appear, the older ones don’t necessarily just vanish. As we’ve seen in many organizations, this can easily lead to a lot of strife and resentment that could tear the unprepared company apart from the inside out. Luckily, this needn’t be the case. By recognizing each generation’s respective strengths and weaknesses, the modern manager can overcome these obstacles and turn them into incredible opportunities for advancement, both professional and personal.


CEO, Indaba Global Coaching, LLC

Office: 727-327-8777

Founder DISCflex

Sample DISC Business Behavior Report

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