How do bright and sparky Gen Zs In your organisation get on with over-stretched Gen Xers? How much do your cash-strapped Millennials share the love with Boomers boasting about pensions? Is multi-generational teamwork an easy skip through the tulips or a simmering pit of exasperation? Why is there misunderstanding between different generations? And how should you tackle it?

What is intergenerational communication?

Organisations blend experience with innovative boldness by employing people from different age groups. People however are a product of their past. Given the lightning rate of change in the last 30 years, the four generations currently in the workplace sometimes seem to come from different planets. This can lead to myths and misassumptions that disrupt teamwork.

Navigating intergenerational communication is complicated by differences in how people contact colleagues, manage tech, and even how they show respect. Intergenerational tension in the workplace is the equivalent of a grumpy family Christmas dinner where everyone tries to get along if only to get dessert.

Organisations tackling miscommunication sometimes hope that corporate wellbeing perks might help. However, almost all such interventions have been branded as ineffective largely because:

  • The voluntary component of corporate perks makes them vulnerable to low participation, which is typically no more than 33% of the workforce – as we explain in our complete guide to wellbeing.
  • Those who do make use of perks are usually offered something (such as a discounted gym membership) that addresses the effects, rather than the causes, of poor ways of working.
  • Consequently, wellbeing perks fail to protect the majority of people from the impact of poor workplace practices.
  • In his assessment of 46,000 employee survey responses, Oxford University researcher Dr William Fleming showed that almost all of the 90 wellbeing interventions he looked at were ineffective.

Understanding generational differences

First off, let’s identify who’s who. When soldiers returned home from WWII there was a sudden boom in birthrates. Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are the oldest generation in the workforce.

The Boomers were followed by Generation X (born 1965-1980), Millennials (born 1981-1996, also known as Generation Y), and Generation Z (born 1997-2012, also known as ‘Zoomers’). Generation Alpha, born in or after 2013, are still in school so we’ll ignore them for now.

Boomers are characterised by a strong work ethic. They value loyalty, stability, and professional relationships developed by building rapport through face-to-face meetings and phone calls. They have often followed traditional career paths and favour a hierarchical structure in which authority depends on job seniority. They are likely to have extensive experience though may not be the most flexible members of the workforce.

Gen X have had to adapt from their analogue background to the digital world. In the face of change, they found security in professionalism which for them includes self-reliance, independence, and adaptability. They seek autonomy at work and value the flexibility this relies on. For Gen X, efficient working involves face-to-face contact and consistent forms of communication, for example a single email address rather than messaging via three different apps.

Millennials have grown up in the digital age and prefer interactive platforms like messaging apps. Practical and hands on, they value efficiency and flexibility – and their tech capabilities help them find both. They are more likely than Gen X to think about diversity and inclusion but are also likely to focus on personal growth. They seek purpose-driven work, rapid career progression, and work-life balance though their achievements can sometimes be undermined by a reputation for entitlement.

Gen Z have been described as digital natives, as such they sometimes struggle to understand the values of the analogue world that some, Boomers especially, feel are being quickly eroded. The meaningful work experiences they seek are best achieved through what they’re doing now rather than via long-term planning. Impatient and irreverent, they take an authentic approach to work in which they may feel entitled to expect the same level of respect enjoyed by more senior peers.

Different backgrounds, different outlooks

Boomers were born at a time when employees of all ages shared universal values. There was a sense of aspiration. It was generally accepted that working hard led to a better job, better pay and the prospect of promotion. These values shaped Boomers’ career hopes and sense of identity. In their day, there was respect and deference, jobs for life and the prospect of comfortable retirement.

There was also ‘us and them’, including dismissive attitudes to anyone who looked different or was perceived to be stepping out of line. There was common understanding, common because everyone had to buy into it, which made it narrow, unimaginative, and exclusive. Alternatives were questioned.

The 1960s and 70s brought great social change, and the 1980s introduced difference in the workplace. Yuppiesarrived. In response to political and technological change, younger generations aspired to faster lifestyles, more independence, and more wealth than had been the norm before.

In the last 30 years, society has changed almost beyond recognition, driven by online immediacy, ‘me-centric’ thinking,  mind-battering social media, and crushing financial limitations – from austerity to the cost of living crisis. How have these developments affected workplace perceptions, especially for those who have known nothing else?

Common problems in intergenerational communication

Gen Z are sometimes dismissed by older colleagues as ‘snowflakes’ wilting under the weight of woke. However, Gen Z were confined by Covid to 18 months at home, which might explain doubts about their interpersonal skills. Alternatively, this issue may stem from their addiction to phones – bequeathed to them by older generations who then wondered why Gen Z adopted the impersonal way of communicating associated with social media.

Since 2000, social change has been so fundamental that younger generations have a different understanding of society compared with Gen X and (certainly) Boomers. To them, Gen Z seem to speak a different language. In this context, misunderstandings are inevitable though are usually based on generational stereotypes and misassumptions, such as:

Boomers: may feel that Gen Z believe everyone is entitled to the same level of respect, raising doubts about the value of experience. While Boomers have spent years building professional relationships, they are concerned that younger generations not only lack interpersonal skills but struggle to even see the need for them. Boomers fear the loss of what they might call ‘soft skills’, which isn’t helped by working from home. They also might struggle with tech more than younger peers.

Gen X: Asking a young new hire sitting next to you a question and receiving a reply via email is likely to enflame Gen X. Millennials may regard this as efficiency, Gen X and Boomers are more likely to see it as lazy or as a failure to grapple with a flicker of people-related anxiety. Gen X managers want Gen Z to be part of the team and feel connected to their peers by talking to them rather than emailing them. Gen Zs may respond by suggesting an app that helps people connect.

Millennials: might regard Boomers as set in their ways. They can see the advantages that come from tech, data, and new digital trends but may feel frustrated that they lack the seniority to act on this knowledge. They want to act quickly but might feel hamstrung by Gen X’s deliberative need for process, complete with emails and paper trails. Millennials’ interpretation of efficiency includes flexible schedules with a hybrid pattern that Boomer leaders and Gen X managers may be reluctant to accept.

Gen Z: can’t see what all the fuss is about. People are people, everyone should be treated equally. Meetings shouldn’t be about who’s allowed to speak. Gen Z feel they haven’t joined the army – no-one in their organisation has stripes on their arm, opportunities should be open to everyone, just as they are online. Gen Z are not in it for a slow ascent up the career ladder; they want to make a difference now by tackling issues with social impact, issues they may feel that older generations have long been happy to let slide.

Better communication in the digital age

Age diversity gives teams greater breadth and depth, leading to new solutions and fresh ways of thinking. But more just than hiring a range of voices, diversity is about ensuring they are heard.

At Working Voices, we have developed a new approach to wellbeing that offers an alternative to the typical strategies noted earlier. By identifying challenges to teamwork, communication, trust, respect and belonging, we have developed an approach to company culture that protects sustainable working practices.

Our wellbeing strategy, which we call The Sustainable Human, helps to develop a multi-generational workforce whose members trust and respect each other. In this environment, mentors from all generations can help to break down stereotypes and replace them with a shared sense of belonging, giving everyone a mutual level of respect and a common sense of purpose.

Boomers can explain the value of personal relationships and the secrets to developing them. Younger generations can show the benefit of tech and the efficiencies it offers. Age diversity  can be successful. But as with all communication, the desire to be understood begins with an interest in understanding others – which means replacing biases and assumptions with an outlook that’s more accurate, more open, and more likely to be effective.

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