Intergenerational Communication Issues: Management Tips for a More Effective Workplace

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Two businesswomen, one older and one younger, sit at a booth in a restaurant and look at paperwork

Diversity in the workplace has become a popular topic of conversation in recent years, as more progressive movements and views have permeated society and culture. At this point, the need for and benefits of more workplace diversity in regards to gender, race and sexual orientation has been well documented, and hiring managers are aware of how it increases their bottom line and retains employees. However, age is one dimension of diversity that may fly under the radar.

Age is an important factor in the workplace, especially in relationships between supervisors and subordinates, and it’s something that managers must pay attention to as they develop their management style. Younger supervisors, in particular, may find it difficult to manage older employees, who may perceive them as inexperienced. On the other hand, young managers may write off the unique and important experiences that older employees bring to the table.

As a manager, you need to find the right balance between establishing yourself as an authority while still remaining open to others’ ideas and experiences. This means superior communication skills, thoughtful management, accommodation of generational differences and awareness of each employee’s needs. This guide to intergenerational communication from Rider University online aims to provide you with the information and tools you need to strike that balance and effectively manage all employees, regardless of age.

Understand the Generation Gap in the Workplace

A generation gap is the difference of opinions, skills, values, attitudes and beliefs between one generation and another. This phrase is almost always used to refer to the differences between young people and those who are notably older than them, such as their parents or grandparents.

Generation gaps don’t just apply to families; they can also have a huge impact on the workplace. Employees who are raised in different generations often have formative experiences that are so dramatically different from one another’s that they may have trouble understanding other points of view. This can lead to conflict and communication issues in the workplace.

There are three main generations represented in today’s workforce:

  • Baby boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964;
  • Generation X, who were born between 1965 and 1980;
  • Millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1996.

The Pew Research Center has established that millennials make up the largest portion of the workforce — about 35% — while Generation X accounts for about one-third of the total population. Baby boomers represent roughly a quarter of the labor force. As time goes on, more baby boomers will retire, and members from younger generations will take their place in the workforce.

The remaining 10% of the workforce is made up of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) and Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012). This guide will focus primarily on baby boomers, Generation X and millennials, as many members of the Silent Generation are already well into their retirement, while most of Generation Z is still not yet old enough to enter the workforce.

There are certain stereotypes associated with each of these generations. To understand the generation gap in the workplace and how it impacts employee relationships, you first have to understand how baby boomers, Generation Xers and millennials see each other, and how these different perspectives can lead to conflicts at work.

Baby Boomers

The oldest generation in the workforce, baby boomers grew up in an environment that differs greatly from the world we live in today. They did not have smartphones, computers or other connected devices. For this reason, baby boomers are thought to be less adept with technology than Generation Xers and millennials.

Baby boomers are also thought to have an incredibly strong work ethic, as increasing numbers of people continue to work well past retirement age. Despite the desire to work longer, many baby boomers have had to make career changes after being forced out of previous positions due to automation or ageist hiring practices, which can further complicate workplace communication.

Baby boomers also have unique values and want different things from their work than younger generations. They like to pay their dues and may expect younger generations to carry the same mindset when it comes to earning respect in the workplace. Baby boomers also tend to prefer that their hard work be acknowledged in the form of yearly raises, promotions and meetings rather than consistent, regular feedback. Because they are facing retirement, it’s important for baby boomers to feel comfortable with their finances and secure with their source of income.

Gen X

In a workforce dominated by baby boomers and millennials, Generation Xers are considered the odd ones out. They grew up with more advanced technology than baby boomers and are more comfortable using modern devices, but lack the native understanding of tech that younger generations possess. Many members of Generation X can use technology as effectively as millennials, but value the same face-to-face social skills that baby boomers prefer.

Overall, Gen Xers are thought to be resilient, independent and able to adapt well. This generation doesn’t enjoy being told what to do, and its members tend to prefer working on their own without any interference, but like clearly communicated goals and expectations. Gen Xers want to be challenged and stimulated by their work, but they also value work-life balance.

At this point, most members of Generation X are middle-aged. Many of them have children, and some older Gen Xers may even have grandchildren. Younger members may be thinking about or actively trying to start a family. They want financial security for their growing families and may be thinking about how to prepare for retirement.

Millennials

In the workforce, millennials are vastly different from their predecessors. This generation is composed of digital natives, as they were the first ones to grow up with computers in their homes and cellphones in their pockets. Millennials are also typically fluent with social media. Not only do they use it in their personal lives, but many also understand how to use social media for business purposes. Their knowledge regarding technology makes millennial employees a huge asset in the modern workplace. However, their reliance on technology may have come at the expense of developing real-life social skills.

Millennials contribute a lot to their work, but they want to receive a lot from their employers in return. They are fast-paced and want to learn, grow and explore new opportunities. They also value consistent feedback from supervisors and relevant company information. Millennials are much more likely to leave for another job than other generations, even if they haven’t been at their current position for a long time — and especially if they feel stagnant at work. Millennials generally crave fulfillment and purpose in their work, even if it means earning less money, and work-life balance is of the utmost importance; millennials prefer flexibility with their schedules and remote work options. While remote and flexible work options are believed to increase employee productivity, this can lead to scheduling and communication difficulties with other employees.

As a manager, you should be aware of the qualities pertaining to each of these generations, but remember that your employees are unique people. You may hire a baby boomer who is more tech-savvy than a millennial, for instance. Account for these individual differences, but keep the typical characteristics of each generation in mind. This will help you understand how your employees view each other and provide the context you need to be a great manager.

Learn to Recognize Ageism and Generational Conflict in the Office

Being aware of these generalizations and how they can contribute to generational conflict is a crucial skill to have as a manager, but this can also help you learn how to recognize ageism in the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines ageism or age discrimination as “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.” U.S. law prohibits harassment and discrimination in the workplace based on someone’s age for employees who are age 40 or older. Employees are only protected against ageism if it contributes to a hostile work environment or affects conditions of employment, such as compensation.

In the workplace, ageism can take many forms, and it isn’t always clear what actually constitutes age discrimination. It can affect hiring practices, factor into promotions or raises, and even seep into your company culture. And, though only older adults are legally protected against ageism, younger employees may also experience prejudice from their coworkers or the company because of their age.

Different generations see each other in particular ways at work, largely due to the stereotypes associated with each generation, and these perceptions play heavily into ageism, creating conflict between older and younger employees. For instance, baby boomers may view millennials as entitled, lazy and antisocial, but millennials may consider baby boomers to be old-fashioned, technologically illiterate workaholics. It doesn’t matter whether or not there is truth in these stereotypes; either way, they can cause employees to be prejudiced against each other, simply due to their age gap.

Watch Out for Ageism in the Hiring Process

As a manager, you have to be mindful of your own biases during the hiring process, including ageism. It is important to do what you can to hire employees you trust or like, but it’s equally important to find the right person for the job, no matter how old they are.

Keep in mind what actually constitutes ageism in the hiring process. While it’s acceptable to not hire someone because they don’t have enough experience in your industry or for the position, it’s considered ageist to not hire someone because they’re too young. Conversely, it’s fine if you choose not to hire someone because they aren’t familiar with the programs or devices needed to do the job, but it’s ageist to refuse to hire a candidate because you believe they are too old to know how to use that technology.

Rather than letting perceived stereotypes cloud your judgment, try to make adjustments to your hiring process. Evaluate employees based on their merits and how they can contribute to the company, not their age. Maintain this mindset while you manage current employees too, especially when you’re considering who to promote or lay off.

Practice Workplace Communication Strategies to Defuse Generational Conflict

Generational conflict in the workplace isn’t an inevitability, but as a supervisor it’s your job to be prepared to deal with it appropriately. This is particularly important if you manage someone who is older than you, as generational stereotypes may contribute to how they treat you.

There are several different strategies you can use to reduce and defuse generational conflict in your workplace, including:

Banish Stereotypes

Banish age-related stereotypes from your mind, and ask all of your employees to do the same. Emphasize how employees should treat each other as individuals — not just members of one generation or another — and get to know one another without generalizations hanging over their heads. Instead of letting preconceptions determine their opinions of their coworkers, they should do their best to keep an open mind when interacting with other employees.

Encouraging employees to socialize face-to-face can help with this undertaking. Talking about business matters over instant message platforms or email doesn’t provide employees with much of a chance to get to know each other. Speaking in-person, though, offers ample opportunity to quickly discuss work and connect personally.

Rethink Company Culture

Who benefits the most from your company culture? Are your events appealing only to a certain age group, such as a video game tournament that attracts primarily millennial employees? Do all of your events take place after work hours, putting an additional strain on employees with young children? Do your events, whether intentionally or not, exclude an entire generation of employees?

Try to promote events that benefit or interest employees of all ages. If that proves too difficult, you can always try to plan a mix of different activities, some of which excite older employees and some that are geared toward younger ones. It can be difficult to create company events that successfully engage all of your employees, but it’s important for all of them to know they are valued and included in work activities.

Use Multiple Communication Methods

Different generations tend to prefer different forms of communication. If you use one method exclusively, it could alienate employees who don’t like to communicate in that way. Communicate in multiple ways, including online and in person. Email, company instant messaging, group meetings and individual meetings can all be effective ways to communicate important and relevant information.

This isn’t only an age-related issue, either; each person has their own communication style. A good manager will not only recognize those preferences, they’ll also tailor their communications to suit each of their employees’ preferences and needs. This can show employees of all ages that you value them as individuals.

Be Mindful of Your Own Experience and Limitations

To be an effective manager, you need to be comfortable acknowledging your own experiences and limitations. Older employees will have more professional experience than you do — in some areas, at least — and that’s OK. In fact, it’s perfectly normal, as they’ve had more time to live their lives, both in and outside of work. Try not to let that diminish your confidence or undermine your leadership. You are a talented individual with plenty to offer as a leader in your organization.

On the other hand, don’t become overconfident in your abilities or arrogant in your leadership. There is still a lot you don’t know and plenty of room to grow as a manager. Always look for ways that you can improve and for different opportunities to keep learning. Training programs, leadership conferences or going back to school can all provide useful information and management uptraining. After all, even if you already have a bachelor’s degree, getting a master’s in organizational leadership can provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to manage a diverse team more effectively.

Become an Active Listener

Good managers don’t just tell employees what to do; they listen to their concerns, thoughts and goals, and do their best to help however they can. Make it a point to be an active listener. You can always go back and re-read an email, but you can’t do so in face-to-face conversations, which baby boomers tend to prefer.

Don’t just wait for your turn to speak; listen actively, giving your employee your full attention. You should also listen to their suggestions and ideas regarding work. Their experience is invaluable, and older employees are just as likely to have creative solutions as younger ones. Further, skilled supervisors can acknowledge when a subordinate has knowledge that they lack, listen to that experience and use that information to make improvements.

Provide Uptraining When Necessary

Older employees may have a more difficult time adapting to new technology, and it may take them longer to learn how to use it than younger digital natives, but they are still completely capable of learning how to use technology. Instead of counting their lack of knowledge as a drawback, think of this employee as a clean slate. You have an opportunity to train them from the beginning, so you can make sure they know how to use the device or program to its fullest extent. This way, you can ensure they have the skills needed to perform in their position while still making the most of their valuable previous experience.

Further, your organization as a whole stands to gain from training older employees on new technologies or practices. Competent and capable leaders who have experience in employee development will recognize that uptraining doesn’t just break down communication barriers or end workplace disputes; it helps your entire organization advance, develop and grow. After all, if your employees are better trained and have more skills and knowledge to utilize in their positions, they are able to contribute more to your company.

Effectively managing diverse teams and communicating with others in the workplace are difficult enough, but things get even more complex when you have to deal with generation gaps. However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Being aware of the generational differences between older and younger employees, taking strides to keep ageism out of the workplace and treating all of your employees like individuals are simple but crucial ways to tackle this challenge. In addition, it will also help you become a better, more knowledgeable and more experienced manager.