If you work with people who are much older than you, or much younger, you may have experienced communication problems from time to time. I know I have found myself in this situation before. I like to collaborate and share ideas and sometimes I like coming up with new, more efficient ways of doing things if I feel an improvement is needed. Needless to say, I’ve worked with some people who did not appreciate this approach. New ideas can be perceived as a threat to a person who has done something the same way for a long time and who isn’t particularly amenable to new ways of doing things. It may make them feel as if they are becoming irrelevant because change is happening at a pace they aren’t comfortable with. They may feel that their position is in jeopardy, particularly if the new ideas are coming from a younger co-worker. While the intent may not be to alienate older, seasoned employees, these behaviors can be perceived as alienating if there has been a breakdown in communication and a lack of good leadership.
Last week we talked about managing multiple generations, specifically bridging generational skill gaps. This week, I want to talk about communication between generations. I’ve mainly focused on millennials thus far but, today, I’d like to consider Generation X’s role in the workforce as “forgotten middle child,” how this colors their perceptions of generational differences, and discuss ways we can all become better communicators and better collaborators despite these differences.
My fellow Gen Xers, we are outnumbered. Considerably. We are also worse off than our parents. We have been the victims of a tanked economy, the housing bubble, student loan debt, and the cost of sending our children to college (read this article and then cry really hard). We are just sad. Soon we will probably be working for millennials (if we aren’t already). We are already working with them. As Sharalyn Hartwell explains in the Market Watch article:
“It is ironic Generation X have been upstaged by the younger generation and left on the shelf…They were the original latchkey kids, and already feel like they were forgotten and neglected by their own parents.”
As a Gen Xer, you may have a much longer trek ahead of you to reach retirement, compared to boomers. You may also have a longer climb up the corporate ladder…and millennials are already nipping at your heels.
Why can’t we all just get along?
Boomers and millenials make up a huge chunk of the workforce. Generation X just doesn’t have the numbers on its side. In addition, the relationship between Xers and millennials can be rocky at times. Here’s why, according to a study by Robert Half International:
- Millennials feel differently about paying their dues. In fact, half of those surveyed felt that professionals should have to spend only 1-2 years paying their dues in entry level positions.
- Millennials are known for a musical chairs-like approach to their careers—they switch jobs. A LOT.
For Gen Xers, a generation that has often been obsessed with authenticity and dues-paying, the millennial approach to dues-paying can be frustrating because of the “fake it til you make it” potential there, which can result in a person with limited experience being moved into a position they may not be qualified for. It can also seem tiresome to baby boomers who have been doing their thing for a long time and pride themselves on experience. However, this same study found that many millennials actually expect to pay their dues in other ways—with advanced degrees, mainly.
As for the millennial tendency to job hop, Xers and baby boomers change jobs and careers less frequently than millennials and may consider job hopping a sign of capriciousness and lack of dedication. While job hopping can sometimes put recruiters off, there may be an upshot, according to a Forbes article: “changing jobs and getting a promotion in the process allows Gen Y employees to avoid the ‘dues paying’ that can trap workers in a painfully slow ascent up the corporate ladder.”
#Winning (at succession planning)
I recently read the book The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley and was struck by this passage:
The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.
Of course, Eiseley was writing about the process of evolution but it’s an apt lens through which we can view succession planning and managing generations. If you are a good leader, you want your organization to evolve. In order for this to happen, a leader must always take an active role in the push forward. The old ways are constantly warring with the new ways. There is a constant push to innovate, but there may be just as much push-back and resistance to a culture of change. In your organization, what that may look like is the older generation butting heads with the younger generation.
Technology isn’t the only breaking point; sometimes our views on what engagement means, what equality means, and how we make those things happen are approached in different ways. As boomers retire, their years of knowledge and experience go with them. Millennials may try to supplant them before they have “paid their dues” and Gen Xers may find it difficult to work with a generation they perceive as entitled. How do we deal with these issues?
The first step in the process is to stop expecting millennials to be like us. This may be a daunting task for Gen Xers who find the millennial approach to moving up frustrating or disrespectful. You may approach innovation in a different way, or express yourself differently, or place less importance on collaborative efforts, but don’t expect your co-workers, be they younger or older, to take the same approach. We have enough in common that we can work from the commonalities and learn from our differences. We have different expectations, different experiences, and, though we all need those basic motivators that Daniel Pink mentions—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—we may reach these motivational goals in different ways.
It is of the utmost importance to bridge gaps in communication and in understanding through mentoring, training, and collaboration between the generations. The success of your organization depends on it. Convey your mission regularly and consistently and always consider the unique things that each generation can bring to the table: the experience of the boomer, the flexibility and stick–to–itiveness of the Gen Xer, and the adaptability and cultural awareness of the millennial.