Credit: Daniel Lee
January 24, 2023 7:30 AM EST

“I think it’s a generational thing.”

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase throughout my career (and sometimes used it myself) to explain away confusion, miscommunication, contrasting points of view, or different styles of working. It’s been happening a lot more lately, though, and with good reason: For the first time in history, five generations are colliding in the workplace. They are:

  • Generation Z: born between 2001 and 2020
  • Millennials: born between 1981 and 2000
  • Generation X: born between 1965 and 1980
  • Baby Boomers: born between 1946 and 1964
  • Silent Generation: born between 1925 and 1945

Their office interactions are often framed as negative—Boomers as resistant to change, or Gen Z glued to their phones—but experts say they don’t have to be. In fact, it’s essential for a healthy workplace that they aren’t.

With so many different people at different life stages making changes right now, that’s no easy task. A recent LinkedIn survey finds 72% of Gen Z-ers and 66% of millennials are contemplating a career change in the next 12 months. Another EY survey finds almost a third of Gen X respondents who intend to quit their job say hybrid or work-from-home options would change their mind. For employers fielding demands from five distinct generations making demands on employers, the juggle is real. Yet keeping inter-generational peace seems key to a harmonious work culture.

“We’re seeing younger workers go digital nomad or taking early-career pauses, mid-career folks returning to school to reskill, parents taking breaks, and people of all ages juggling care responsibilities,” notes Marci Alboher, vice president at CoGenerate, a nonprofit focused on bridging generational divides. “People are abandoning retirement to pursue encore careers that combine purpose, passion, and a paycheck. So it results in workplaces with a combination of people of all stages needing to partner, support each other, and collaborate with whomever is nearby—across a lot of lines of difference, including age.”

Last week, I attended a panel discussion sponsored by Alboher’s organization titled “Get ready for the 5-generation workforce.” Here are some takeaways from the event, combined with context from recent trends, studies, and sound advice to get through.

Generation is one just layer of identity.

Beware of using a “generation” as a catch-all for blame versus considering the entirety of a person’s life experience. For example, a Gen X manager might want to pause and really deliberate before they greenlight a new strategy, not because they are slow and resistant to change, but because they laid off 50 employees in their last startup and don’t want to go through that again. Or a millennial worker might have his phone off on weekends because his partner works in another state, the kids go to bed at 7 p.m., and their family time is sacred on Saturday.

“People say, ‘Well, I’m an older millennial’ or ‘I’m a younger baby boomer,’” says Megan Gerhardt, author of Gentelligence: A Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. “That’s because age and generation can show up very differently in the way that you view things in your experience. You can also put gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, culture, where you are in the world or any part of your identity that can fit into this.”

Choose curiosity over judgment.

Along the lines of the above, dig deeper to understand what motivates colleagues of different generations. A simple phrase like “Help me understand why you see it that way” goes much further than “I don’t understand why you see it that way.” One is a request, while the other is a judgment.

Only once these conversations take place can two parties establish the trust needed to have a working relationship.

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Method of communication is really, really, really important.

Toggling between Slack, text message, phone calls, Zoom, Teams, Google Hangout, and email (and, perhaps occasionally, in-person conversation) is chaotic enough. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by assigning entire generations a preferred mode of communication, versus understanding that, like all things, styles really vary individually. Without that nuance, misunderstandings can run rampant.

“The fact that older people are presumed not to know how to use technology is completely inaccurate. Where complexity in evidence matters is that we do know that older people are sometimes less interested in using technology as constantly or as pervasively as younger people,” says Gerhardt.

For example, she recalls an employer where younger people would often text their ideas and questions to one another. The older people would not respond, though, and the younger colleagues felt disrespected and thought it was because their elder counterparts were not enthusiastic. It turns out that the reticence to engage was driven by evening hours being reserved for personal time or family, and the feeling that text was not the right forum for work communications.

“Very quickly, something that seemed minor ended up escalating to a tension that had to be addressed directly,” Gerhardt says. “It’s not my way or your way, it’s: Can you help me understand why you’re not responding to those texts, or why you choose text over email? What’s our team norm going to be? What’s our goal? How do we reach it together? What’s going to make the most sense for the way that we work together and something we can agree upon?”

In a recent offsite I conducted, we went around the table and talked about our preferred means of communication across meetings and one-on-one interactions—and what tools and platforms optimized for each. It got as granular as “You’ll most often find me on Slack” or “I hate seeing myself on Zoom so I turn off the camera.” In an upcoming meeting, we’re going a step further and sharing “user manuals” of our work and leadership styles so people can better assess how to best communicate with us.

Working across generations makes good business sense.

It’s not just your workforce that’s spanning multiple generations. It’s likely your customer base, too.

CoGenerate’s Encore Fellowships program matches veteran talent with social-impact work. Darlene Johnson, who leads the program, shares the story of an organization that mailed out a newsletter and made the decision to shift from print to digital. “Then they got so many complaints because a large part of their constituents were elder people who did not necessarily have access, and all of a sudden thought the newsletter was gone,” she recounts. “It wasn’t something that crossed the minds of the leadership team as they were making this change—because there wasn’t anybody representing that age group, or at least that demographic on their team.”

The organization ended up with a hybrid option: print for the elder base who relied upon it and digital for others. Looking at product innovation from multiple perspectives, including age, is key.

Assess your own social circles.

Are your parents and grandparents the only elder people you talk to regularly? Do you need to google Sza, Scarlet May, or Crosby, Stills & Nash to know who your colleagues are talking about in the #random Slack channel? (You should.) I’ve long said that in order to make changes at work in the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion, you need to assess the homefront first. If you do not embrace or operate in circles across generations, it will be very difficult to address these issues at work. Know that the burden of building such networks is on you. Join affinity groups, employee resource groups, volunteer activities. Befriend older and younger neighbors. Mentor youth. Be mentored by youth.

The pandemic is a really really big deal.

Does it feel like some young people you work with are still not quite sure of the ways of work, life, and, well, everything? That’s because they might still be reeling from the events of the last few years.

The Covid pandemic and ensuing lockdown indeed hit different generations differently. “We know through research that we all have formative experiences that we go through: Roughly, things that you experienced between age 5 and 20, when your brain isn’t fully formed, really have a more profound effect on you and your life than they might on somebody older,” says Gerhardt. “A great example would be the pandemic. We’ve all been affected by it. But those young people aged 5 to 20, it will have a more profound effect on their attitudes.”

We still don’t know what those effects will be, but we’ll undoubtedly spend many years to come figuring it out. Treat this generation, just entering the workforce now, with the grace and kindness you’d extend any colleague who has been through a traumatic event.

Mentoring is a two-way street.

Often, older colleagues say they have knowledge to impart but young people don’t want to listen.

Successful mentorship, though, is all about a give and take. The better tact might be to seek knowledge, from those younger than us as well as older.

“I love to turn to people who are younger than me and say, ‘I’d love to know how you would approach that. Tell me how you would do it’,” says Gerhardt. “You’re showing them respect. We know our younger generations are incredibly interested in having voice and input and being heard.”

These dynamics might require unlearning what we think we know. “It’s bi-directional,” Johnson says of mentoring. “When you’re on the corporate side, they train you, especially if you’ve been a people manager, to have a filter.”

When I was in my 20s (I am now 46), I used to feel stymied by older editors who moved too cautiously for my tastes. A mentor of mine cautioned me: “You too will get old. If you are lucky.”

I didn’t know what he meant then. But I do now. It’s not just age, but the collective toll of decision-making over years that starts to inform everything we do. In this year of economic uncertainty, I was faced with a tough decision last week and I consulted the usual folks via text and phone call. On a whim, I called up an 89-year-old friend. He’s been through more recessions than anyone I know. And that’s the perspective I needed.

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