If you look around the average workplace today, you’re likely to see an unprecedented mixture of generations working together. For the first time, four generations make up the U.S. workforce: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and the emerging Generation Z (those born after 1995).
While older and younger people working together is nothing new, the stark differences between the generations—their characteristics and communication styles—can make today’s multigenerational workplace challenging.
With Baby Boomers deferring retirement, and new STEM grads entering the workforce, the generation gap is as wide as it’s ever been in the office. Let’s look at how those dynamics impact the workplace.
The world and workplace have changed significantly in just the last 15 years, so imagine the dramatic shifts Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have experienced in their careers. These generations have learned to adapt, especially when it comes to technology advances. The two groups have many similar work characteristics, despite a few differences in values and preferences.
Baby Boomers remain a significant portion of the workforce, due in large part to a collective decision to delay retirement (49 percent plan to retire sometime after age 65). They have a strong work ethic and value job security and teamwork. Generation X workers tend to be skeptical of authority, prefer autonomy, and value training and development, financial security, and work-life balance.
Millennials make up more than a third of the workforce. They are the most educated generation in history and value freedom and flexibility, making a difference in the world, constant communication, and validation.
The knock on Millennials is that they tend to be entitled and not interested in paying their dues like other generations have. “They want to know where they’re headed and head there much more quickly and expect a quicker level of progression,” said David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a consulting firm that provides multigenerational workforce training. “Generations before them think in terms of years to make those moves, whereas Millennials think in terms of months.”
The desire to progress quickly may also be the reason Millennials change jobs frequently. Their average tenure at a job is about three years. But in many ways, Millennials aren’t that different from other generations.
“Most successful Gen Xers and Baby Boomers have demonstrated a level of impatience, entitlement, aggressiveness as it pertains to their progression, and have matched it with a level of achievement,” Lewis said. “If you focus on those characteristics, they define entrepreneurs and high-potential individuals. But when you put those characteristics in someone who’s under age 30, suddenly that person comes across as entitled and unwilling to pay their dues.”
Breaking the Communication Barrier
Communication is the primary challenge for generations in the workforce, as each age group interacts differently. Millennials and Generation Z are constantly connected to their devices, and can look at multiple screens at a time while holding a conversation with a co-worker. Gen Xers and Boomers view such attributes as disrespectful or lacking focus, but it’s just how the younger generations tend to operate.
Lewis thinks that awareness of communication styles is key to overcoming this challenge. Organizations and individuals need to communicate that Millennials often absorb information at a constant rate, and are not being rude when they appear distracted. Likewise, Millennials need to put down their devices from time to time, especially during meetings.
Though there are hundreds of tools businesses use to improve communication, different generations often prefer different platforms. While older generations prefer email, text or even phone conversations, Millennials gravitate toward instant messaging apps.
“When you’re dealing with multiple generations, you have to adjust your approach because everyone pays attention to different things,” said Chris Brown, vice president of human resources at West Unified Communications. “You can’t base everything on Millennials. You have to respect Gen X and Boomers, and have this multi-tiered approach in terms of communication, whether it be face-to-face, phone, or social media.”
At the same time, Brown asserts, you have to be careful that isolated communities don’t form around certain tools. Particularly in large organizations, where there can be five different instant messaging tools in use, people sometimes miss important information. About 66 percent of IT employees use shadow IT apps for communication, which most CIOs are unaware of.
Brown advises managers to set a precedent for communication and help everyone get onboard. Too many times managers expect communication to happen naturally, but they must recognize the diversity on their team and figure out the best tool to use.
Impact of Millennial Culture
Tech is seen as a young person’s domain. While the average American worker is 42 years old, major tech companies such as Facebook (average age: 28), Salesforce (29), Google (30), Apple (31), and Amazon (31) have a much younger average workforce. Even at older tech companies such as IBM and HP, the average worker is under 40.
It’s well-documented that the tech industry has an issue with ageism—even Mark Zuckerberg once said young people are just smarter. While many startups have Millennial founders and leadership, other companies are just starting to see the shift in leadership to Millennials. According to a Future Workplace survey, 83 percent of respondents have seen Millennials managing older generations in their office. Yet 45 percent of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers feel Millennial managers have a negative impact on company culture, and one-third of Millennials have said it’s difficult managing older generations.
Drew Eckhardt, a 44-year old software engineer, sees age as less of an issue than career stage. “A 40-year-old person promoted to their first management position will have the same struggles as a 25-year-old promoted to their first management position,” he said. “I’m sure there are issues between the different generations in some places. The differences I see on a regular basis are more a question of career stage, how long they’ve been on the job.”
While it’s debatable whether Millennial leadership has a negative impact on culture, there is evidence that some Millennial-founded companies have run into problems without seasoned leadership. Take the case of Zenefits, which ran a frat house-type office before new leadership was brought in. However, when older executives run Millennial-dominated companies, it can create other problems.
“Companies have to figure out what the older leadership is there for: Are they there to fix things and make them more professional or are they there to not mess with the culture but bring more experience and capabilities?” Lewis said. “On one hand, you want to tighten things up and add a level of professionalism and maturity; but on the other hand, how much of your success and DNA is tied to the youth of the organization? You could end up fixing one thing and breaking two others in the process. You have to look for that delicate balance.”
New workplace dynamics can create challenges. But they also generate an opportunity for innovation and growth, as different generations bring unique experiences and perspectives to their work.