Whether you’re a recent grad poised to enter the workforce or a seasoned professional adjusting yourself to the contours of a new and emerging landscape post-COVID, all of us are in the same position when it comes to learning to navigate the multigenerational workforce. Or in other words, having to face generational differences in the workplace.
With everyone from Boomers to GenZ now in the mix, there’s plenty of space for potential issues. When the generations come together, conflicts, friction, communication problems, and downright confusion are bound to occur.
Fortunately, the worst-case scenarios can be prevented from playing out. With a bit of forward thinking and preparation, we can all be ready to tackle generational differences in the workplace in 2021.
Major Generational Differences in the Workplace
We exist at an interesting historical intersection. The age diversity in the current workforce is the widest it’s ever been. Across industries, people from a potential five generations are working side-by-side, bringing together a heady mix of life experiences and core values.
- The Silent Generation, born between the 1920s-1940s, value tradition.
- Baby Boomers, born between the 1940s-1960s, value stability and social order.
- Generation X, born between the 1960s-1980s, value self-sufficiency and individualism.
- Millennials, born between the 1980s-1990s, value flexibility and opportunity.
- Generation Z, born between the late 1990s-2010s, value diversity and interdependence.
Although most of the workforce is formed from Boomers, GenX, and Millennials, a few from the Silent Generation are still going strong, and the number of GenZ workers increases every day. While not everyone fits neatly into the generalizations outlined above, the differences between how members of each generation approach their jobs can still prove stark.
For instance, while the older generations prefer to keep hard office hours and maintain a professional tone in their in-house communications, the younger generations like to keep looser hours and connect with colleagues in more informal ways.
As you can imagine, all of these differences in habits and core values can easily lead to these groups misunderstanding one another’s motives, devaluing their coworkers’ ideas, and inadvertently talking past one another. In short, generational issues in the workplace can lead to conflicts; and in many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the divide.
Generational Differences and COVID-19
There’s no aspect of our lives the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t touched. That includes generational dynamics at work. In most cases, the strange nature of work during the pandemic has only heightened existing tensions in the multigenerational workforce.
Some issues will understandably have been sidelined to be dealt with when basic existence no longer seems quite so fragile, but as we emerge from lockdowns, problems previously plaguing corporations could be more pronounced than ever before. Managing the multigenerational workforce may well be one of them.
One way in which the pandemic has exacerbated the generational conflict has been to ramp up the divide between the generations who have struggled to keep up with the fast pace of recent digital developments and the ones who have come of age since the tech revolution.
The Generations and WFH Models
During the height of the pandemic, corporations pivoted largely to work-from-home (WFH) models, leveraging recent tech innovations and digital solutions to keep themselves in business during rolling global lockdowns. Work hours and the ways in which teams stay connected became much more fluid. In most cases, Millennials and GenZ handled this shift fairly smoothly.
Already familiar with the tech required to thrive in a WFH environment, they were able to adapt—and some of them even learned to thrive. GenX, Boomers, and the Silent Generation, however, largely struggled with adapting to the new systems and expectations.
While the present situation won’t last forever, there’s also no way everything will return to exactly the way it was pre-pandemic. This means emerging from the pandemic will be tricky.
Emerging from the Pandemic
As we emerge from this strange time and return to in-person work, companies will no doubt discard some of their WFH adaptations. Some changes they will keep, finding that the innovations the pandemic forced upon them actually helped their departments to thrive in unexpected ways.
While the Millennials and the Zoomers will by and large embrace these changes wholesale, GenXers, Boomers, and the Silent Generation are more likely to resist, longing with nostalgia for a return to the old ways. Leaders will need to be on the alert for these and other potential fissures. Unaddressed generational issues in the workplace rarely resolve themselves.
How Multigenerational Differences and Conflicts Affect the Workplace
Generational differences in the workplace don’t necessarily lead to direct conflict every time; however, because the potential for conflict is always present, leaders will want to keep their eyes peeled for the most common ways in which generational differences can affect the workplace.
Generational Hierarchies in the Workplace
Although American culture is not extremely hierarchical in nature, age and experience both do play a role in forming informal generational hierarchies in the workplace. As with other diversity issues such as age, gender, ethnicity, and race, examining and understanding generational effects has become increasingly important for maximizing organizational effectiveness.
While inflexible hierarchies based solely on age and seniority often have a stifling effect on growth and innovation, throwing this dynamic out the window on principle can have just as crippling an effect.
- Hierarchies move slowly
- Hierarchies impede innovation
- Hierarchies breed distrust
As you consider intergenerational workplace dynamics, attempt to strike a balance between giving respect and authority to the more experienced members of your company while still valuing all the younger and less senior members of the team bring to the table. Otherwise, even an informal generational hierarchy could wind up inadvertently stunting your company’s growth.
Generation Gaps Between Managers and Employees
Generation gaps between managers and employees have the potential to cause great damage to your team, and because managers tend to be people with seniority (therefore typically of an older generation) gaps between these groups should be considered through a specific lens.
One of the broadest gaps between the older and the younger generations is the high value that Millennials and Generation Z place on diversity and inclusion. Those who are responsible for managing generational differences in the workplace absolutely cannot overlook this matter.
When the older generations hear the word diversity, they’re likely to think simply of matters pertaining to race and gender. Younger workers, on the other hand, have a broader view of what would be necessary for true workplace diversity.
- Gender identity
Generation gaps such as these must be anticipated and addressed in order to ensure they do not become fissures and create rifts between managers and employees.
Mentoring in a Multigenerational Context
In addition to matters related to diversity and inclusion, generational differences at work often manifest themselves in issues surrounding social issues and politics. Unfortunately, this can become a major hurdle, particularly when it comes to mentoring in a multigenerational context.
While many look to work mentors to help them hone their leadership skills, advance their careers, and navigate the ins and outs of the business world, there’s a sense in which they desire their mentoring relationship to be more holistic. In a healthy mentoring relationship, mentors can speak into their mentees’ entire lives, encouraging them to form healthy bonds, and nurture their hearts and minds.
Unfortunately, strong relational bonds between generations can be hindered by the generation gap in American politics. According to the Pew Research Center, generational differences on political issues are wider than they have been in decades, leading to deep ideological divides:
From immigration and race to foreign policy and the scope of government, two younger generations, Millennials and Gen Xers, stand apart from the two older cohorts, Baby Boomers and Silents. And on many issues, Millennials continue to have a distinct—and increasingly liberal—outlook.
Strong working knowledge of where the generations land on social and political issues can only benefit those seeking to establish, foster, and navigate effective workplace mentorships in a multigenerational context.
Pros and Cons of the Multigenerational Workplace
The question isn’t so much a matter of whether you will experience a multigenerational workforce. The question is if you are prepared to come together with your coworkers in an effort to maximize the pros and minimize the cons.
To do either, we will all need an increased awareness of both the potential positives and negatives of generational differences in the workplace. That way we’ll recognize them for what they are and be ready to deal with them when they inevitably manifest themselves.
Pros of a Multigenerational Workforce
Fortunately, there are many wonderful things about working together with people of different ages and stages. Studies show that diverse teams are simply smarter, and that includes teams with generational diversity. Companies that truly diversify their hires pay attention not only to matters such as nationality, cultural identity, and gender but also to age.
By far, the greatest advantage of generational differences at work is the potential for transmission of knowledge among the generations. Older generations can share their wealth of practical experience gained over years on the job, and younger generations can share their passion for innovation, their technical savvy, and their sheer vitality.
To create an atmosphere in which this transmission can thrive, take time to evaluate your workplace and investigate the following:
- The characteristics of each generation on your team
- The different cultural values and identity of your workers
- Potential strengths and conflicts that could arise when these values and identities come together at work
Once you’ve studied these areas and considered the implications, you can incorporate your findings into a working strategy that can help leverage positive group dynamics and overall productivity.
Cons of the Multigenerational Workforce
Generational differences in the workplace do have their downsides. Although the list of potential cons in the multigenerational workforce could prove lengthy, four main issues tend to cause the most friction:
- Company culture – Older and younger generations may have diverging views on what healthy company culture looks like. Often, however, these views remain unspoken and are assumed to be understood.
- Communication styles – As we’ve already hinted, younger generations tend to be more casual in their communication styles than the old guard. This creates an environment primed to breed offenses and misunderstandings.
- Negative stereotypes – Boomers and Millennials especially have often been pitted against one another in unhelpful ways, creating an atmosphere full of negative preconceived notions.
- Cultural expectations – While younger generations place a higher premium on things like maintaining a healthy work-life balance and protecting their mental health, older generations may perceive such boundary-setting as a lack of commitment or “slacking off.” Helping the generations understand one another’s norms will be key to overcoming potential conflicts.
Fortunately, being forewarned is forearmed, and savvy leaders can give their teams the tools they need to work through these generational issues in the workplace. How do you create and manage a cohesive team? In order for real progress to occur in the multigenerational workforce, every age group must offer flexibility and openness.
The Multigenerational Workplace: Ultimately a Good Thing
Despite the challenges involved, the multigenerational workplace is actually a good thing—both for individual workers themselves and for companies as a whole. William Ross, Director of Better Business Consulting Co., believes that the multigenerational workforce is ultimately a net gain. In his mid-twenties himself, Ross stands at the nexus of the older generations and the rising tide of younger workers.
“Having people from different generations working together allows them to share the specialized knowledge that they have gathered with people of other ages,” Ross tells us.
The way he sees it, recent grads have new innovations to teach corporate veterans, while seasoned industry professionals can help the new kids on the block find their footing in real-life corporate scenarios.
In this way, seasoned GenX professionals can work alongside GenZ up-and-comers in ways that blend and balance the best of both their worlds:
- Independence and interdependence
- Tech savvy and human connection
- Dedication and work-life balance
- Experience and innovation
When team members of different generations are able to combine their strengths, cover one another’s weaknesses, and grow together as a cohesive unit, their power grows exponentially.
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