Take a look around your office. There’s a high probability that you’re working with people of every age range. With advanced technology and medical breakthroughs, people are living longer, which means retirement is being delayed more and more every year. Consequently, people are working until a later age to save up for a longer and comfortable post-employment life.
Today’s workplace is diverse as ever. There are four generations working side by side: Silent Generation (1925-1942), Baby Boomers (1943-1964), Generation X (1965-1979), and Millennials/Generation Y (1980-2000). In a few years, this number will grow to five once Generation Z (2001-2013) is able to start legally working. Having employees from various backgrounds can create a dynamic work environment, where new ideas are constantly flowing and being bounced off each other. But as we all know, it doesn’t always work that way, does it?
In theory, it should work. But in reality, you’re going to have people butting heads and simply not seeing eye-to-eye. And how can they? The youngest generation and oldest generation have a 75 year gap between them. So how can you solve this modern-day workplace problem? Here are some ways your business can bridge the generation gap:
1. Take time to understand the differences of each generation.
Each generation has shared experiences that shaped how they grew up and in turn, influenced their work styles. Let’s take a quick peek at the major events that molded each generation and how it may impact how they prefer to work:
- Silent Generation (1925-1942)
Though this generation bred a lot of important civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, they’re largely known for conformism. They lived during the McCarthy era, which caused them to keep “silent” for fear of speaking freely about their opinions and beliefs. They’re known to be fiercely loyal, working for only one company (or maybe two) during their entire life. They have a great deal of respect for authority and prefer hierarchical organizational structures. Though they’re known for their excellent work ethic, they may need some guidance when learning new technology.
- Baby Boomers (1943-1964)
After World War II, Americans went back to the basics: family. Thus, the “boom” in babies so they’re fairly used to competition and trying to stand out in a large group. These “hippie kids” also founded the Summer of Love and feverishly danced to a emerging music genre known as rock ‘n roll. Though they were raised to respect authority, they don’t quite trust it because of the political unrest that clouded their time. They grew up questioning the system, from supporting the Civil Rights Movement to protesting the Vietnam War. So although they may seem old-fashioned, they’re a bit more open-minded than the previous generation is.
- Generation X (1965-1979)
This generation is also known as the Latchkey Generation, a product of divorced parents and single-family homes. So they’re naturally independent and flexible since they had to learn how to acclimate to a changing and unstable home environment. Another popular name for them is the MTV Generation. They grew up with music videos, punk rock, alternative rock, hip hop, and other experimental art forms. Unlike the generation before them, they do not idolize their leaders. Instead, they try to work from within to create a change. According to the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau, they have the highest levels of education so not only are they hard-working but well-educated.
- Millennials/Generation Y (1980-2000)
Millennials witnessed our country crumble (and rebuild itself) after 9/11. After the economy took a downturn in 2008, many highly educated college graduates were left unemployed. So although they were generally given more freedom and choices while growing up, they quickly learned to distrust authority and the system since it never seemed to work in their favor. A recent Millennial Branding report found that 45 percent of Millennials will choose workplace flexibility (like being an Independent Contractor) over higher pay so they prioritize work/life balance when looking for a career. They also grew up with the rise of the Internet and saw (and quickly adapted to) many other technological developments so they’re arguably the most apt at learning and using new technology.
2. One size fits all? Think again.
It’s hard to imagine a world without technology. But for those generations that never grew up with it, it’s not an easy feat to get up to speed. The ever-changing landscape of technology can be overwhelming for the older generations. Consider the preferences of each generation (and person) and how they like to work and communicate.
It’s no surprise that Millennials prefer to email and text. They grew up with the Internet. For them, nostalgia comes in the form of the AOL dial-up connection buzz (and praying that no one picks up the home phone and boot you offline). They’re used to communicating with friends (and just about anyone) via computer and/or mobile phone. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Silent Generation unsurprisingly feel more comfortable with face-to-face interactions. So if their job description doesn’t require them to use a certain software or communication tool, don’t force them. Make sure they feel comfortable with whatever technology they’re using.
3. Encourage camaraderie, regardless of age.
So your oldest employee may be nearing his 60th birthday while your new hire may be fresh out of college. Yes, there will be a lot of things that people won’t have in common: “Did you watch that rerun of M*A*S*H last night?” “Um, mash what?” “Are you going to that new bar opening?” “Probably not.” But no, not everyone needs to become fast friends. But there is a (big) common denominator and goal that can build camaraderie, trust, and respect (slowly but surely): work.
Encourage brainstorming sessions and workshops that will bring all your employees together. The more time they spend together, the more comfortable they’ll feel around each other. It may also be a good idea to have a regular outings with the whole team. Bringing them out of the workplace can lighten the mood and loosen the stiff air. Plus, it can give everyone a chance to get to know each other as a person, not simply as “a person I work with.”
4. We can all learn from each other.
It’s true! That’s one of the greatest things about diversity. At first, the different walks of life can become an obstacle when trying to connect with others. But at the same time (let’s look at the glass half-full, shall we?), this can be beneficial. Our commonality is our differences and when we look at it objectively, we can make it work in our favor.
Naturally, Millennials can teach the older generations about emerging technology that can help streamline work processes for everyone. Since they’re generally the most comfortable with new software, you can make them the point person for all those initiatives. It’ll make them feel included and valued. While Baby Boomers can provide younger generations with wisdom from their years of work experience—fostering a give-and-take work environment.
Of course, all this is not to say that everyone identifies with what we’ve listed above. There will always be exceptions to the rule. And like with anything, you should look at your situation on a case-by-case basis. Your newfound insight to all the different generations will help you make better leadership decisions and bridge the gap in communication for everyone. After all, a happy employee makes a happy employer.
What are you doing to help bridge the generation gap at your workplace? Let us know in the comments below!