Bridging the Gap: Improving Intergenerational Communication

With so many people of different ages being asked to work together, there are bound to be a few bumps in the road. A lack of respect between generations often can flare up if individuals focus on each other’s differences rather than the strengths and skills each generation brings.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by the year 2020 there will be five generations active in the workforce. As organizations get increasingly age-diverse, they need to understand the communication and development strains this diversity can create, and how to overcome them.

Historically, workers have been able to start collecting full retirement benefits from the government at the age of 65. That number has been raised to 67 recently, forcing many workers to stay in the workforce longer than expected. As life expectancy continues to rise, more people have continued to do some sort of work after retirement than ever before. A 2015 Career Builder survey found that 54 percent of senior workers will rejoin the labor force after retiring from their current careers.

With so many people of different ages being asked to work together, there are bound to be a few bumps in the road. A lack of respect between generations often can flare up if individuals focus on each other’s differences rather than the strengths and skills each generation brings.

Currently, the workforce largely comprises three generations: Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials. Each generation grew up in slightly different cultures, with influential events that shaped them. Here is a quick description of each of the generations:

  • Baby Boomers prize fairness and individual rights, personal growth and freedom of expression. They are motivated internally when they can have ownership, receive recognition and feel needed. After feeling judged and deprived by their parents of the Veteran Generation, they are very sensitive to feedback and uncomfortable with conflict.
  • Generation Xers prefer diversity, fun, self-reliance, and nontraditional approaches. They are willing to work hard, but will not be taken advantage. Generation Xers were the first generation to have equally strong internal and external goal motivation. They seek guidance from their values and aspirations, and are equally adept at responding to a changing external landscape. They are both responsible and responsive.
  • Millennials are tenacious, heroic, savvy, and technologically advanced. They possess self-efficacy and a belief in their abilities to handle whatever comes their way. This could be why 72 percent of Millennials feel that their current organizations are not making full use of the skills they have to offer. Generally, Millennials are motivated by challenge, action, unconditional acceptance, and change.

Different motivating factors, skill sets, and goals can make it very difficult for a team to work together cohesively. Even worse, without open conversation about the intergenerational workforce, drama can start to spread and take over an entire office. For example, a Baby Boomer may see a smart Millennial quickly rising up the ladder, and argue that it’s not fair, given that the Millennial doesn’t have as much experience as he does. This can quickly create additional negative assumptions, such as management is overlooking them, they aren’t wanted at the company, or that they’re being disrespected and displaced. To mitigate this workplace drama, here are five ways to improve communication between every generation in your workforce:

  1. Understand each generation’s motivating factors and influences: Some of your employees may be able to identify common traits and trends among the generations at work, but very few will understand what causes those patterns. For example, Gen Xers were the first generation where their parents generally were able to give them everything they wanted without the children having to work for it, which is why they put so much value on the importance of having fun. However, this generation also saw soaring divorce rates among their parents, so there’s often a fear of abandonment and insecurity.
  2. Identify general communication preferences: Sharing research around generational communication preferences, motivating factors, and influences is an important step to creating a better level of understand among your employees. This information sharing also can open up a dialogue for teams, managers, and subordinates to share their own personal communication preferences and discuss how they compare to the stereotype of their generation.
  3. Accept the team’s differences: Looking beyond generational differences and talking about personal communication preferences may result in people finding common ground, but more often than not, there will be differences in work and communication styles. Employers need to emphasize the importance of creating teams with different strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.
  4. Focus on continuous learning: Successful workers and businesses both place an emphasis on continuous learning and development, and with five generations working together by 2020, there is a huge opportunity for peer-to-peer learning. Tech-savvy Millennials can be tapped to teach skills and new platforms to older employees, while Boomers may be able to share historical knowledge about the company and industry that Millennials could only read about.
  5. Develop mentor relationships: Developing a culture that is rooted in continuous learning can be achieved through mentor relationships. These relationships are mutually beneficial and can be emotionally fulfilling for both parties. These close relationships also help to develop a level of trust and respect that can quickly spread

Already, some organizations have grandparents working next to teenagers. The potential challenges that come with this are numerous, and so are the benefits. If organizations are able to proactively understand, share, and discuss the communication preferences of each generation, they will be equipped to harness the power of their entire workforce to move the business forward.

Dr. Nate Regier is the co-founder, owner, and chief executive officer of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in leadership communication. A former practicing psychologist, Dr. Regier has a doctorate in clinical psychology. He is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, teambuilding, and change management. An international advisor, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer, Process Communication Model certifying master trainer, and co-developer of Next Element’s Leading Out of Drama training and coaching. Dr. Regier has published two books: “Beyond Drama” and his latest work, “Conflict Without Casualties,” which was published in May 2016.

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