While most workplaces today strictly prohibit the discrimination of workers based on religion, culture, gender and sexual orientation, many employees still feel justified in openly stereotyping colleagues based on age or perceived age. It’s one of the last types of discrimination in the workplace that is frequently tolerated. Why is there sometimes intergenerational tension in the workplace?
Different generations in the workplace have different values and preferred communication strategies, which can lead to misunderstanding, miscommunication and drama. For example, baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and Generation X (born 1965-1980) workers are commonly indignant that millennials (born 1981-2000) have had the audacity to shake up the workplace. This can be challenging for many baby boomers and Gen-Xers, who typically “went with the flow” when they began their careers. Perhaps they didn’t like what their bosses had to say, but they didn’t often challenge the status quo—especially initially. Generation X tolerated having less of a voice because their numbers were smaller.
What are some ways to better understand your age-diverse colleagues so you can reduce workplace drama and get more done?
Traditionalists (born prior to 1946)
Yes, many are still in the workplace! Even though many are quite tech-savvy, they often prefer in-person contact, even if they have to travel and it’s not as convenient as virtual meetings. They value loyalty and cooperation and want to be rewarded for those values.
They appreciate “face time” at the office and want to feel like they can get in touch with colleagues, supervisors and subordinates, particularly during business hours. While the workplace climate is adapting to more telecommuting and virtual working, it is important to make baby boomers feel like you are accessible. This generation feels you need to “put in your time.”
This group tends to feel excluded. The media focuses on workplace tension between baby boomers and millennials, while Generation X employees are still in the prime of their careers! It’s important to acknowledge that Gen-Xers are part of the organization. They are practical, informal and like feedback.
Millennials tend to struggle with frustration over any policy or procedure that doesn’t make sense to them, from lack of a telecommuting policy to the arbitrary length of time it may take to achieve a promotion. They respond best when they are given reasonable explanations as to why the status quo can’t be challenged.
Millennials also want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves—being passionate about their work is essential. Contrary to popular myths, they are not lazy. They will work hard and long hours if they believe in the mission. But if there are rules they don’t understand, it helps to get their buy-in; if they understand why a rule exists, they are more likely to follow it. They thrive with continuous feedback and autonomy with limits. They enjoy team-building and love working with people who are different from them. Respect for diversity is a major value for this generation.
Get to know your colleagues
Understanding the values and needs of each generation in the workplace is important so you can communicate better and get more done. But while it’s important to understand age diversity in the workplace, it’s even more essential to get to know your colleagues as individuals. Is that millennial down the hall caregiving for her mother, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease? Is that why she is pushing for a better telecommuting policy? Does that traditionalist manager prefer in-person meetings because his hearing is failing?
These generational terms offer only a glimpse of who your colleagues really are. Look beyond the stereotype and get to know your coworkers as human beings so you can learn how to best communicate and collaborate with them. iBi
Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP is an author, instructor at Johns Hopkins University and founder of Jenerations Health, helping organizations boost productivity, morale and revenue through generational awareness. Her latest book is Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One. For more information, visit jenniferfitzpatrick.com.