Navigating generational diversity in the workplace is not really as hard as it seems on the surface. Still, it creates so many challenges that can affect team cohesion (i.e. the closeness of your workgroup).

Various generations working together often struggle to understand the other and meet one another’s needs.

For instance, one generation may need more consistency based on how they were groomed to approach the world of work. They believe good things come in time, practice, and long-term experimentation.

At the same time, you have another generation who’s approach is completely different from their predecessors.

They grew up in a world with innovative technology, short-cuts, and other modern methods that QUICKLY streamline processes and tasks. They get things done QUICKLY and think all their colleagues should as well.

Boomers must be flexible working with other age groups.

See where the “issues” arise with generational diversity in the workplace?

It’s really easy to become confused and professionally frustrated in such a generational “melting pot”. Millennials, Boomers, Gen Xers may find they bug one another on a daily basis and wonder if they can ever work together as a unit. If so, how?

In my opinion, it all begins with trying to understand one another and exercising some patience along the way.

No, navigating generational differences in the workplace is not as mysterious as people think. At the heart of it, as I always say, people are people.

As you read on, I hope my thoughts will help a little regardless of what generation is yours. Let’s talk about working with people of different ages and building strong teams at the same time.

Let me clarify the generations am I talking about today?

Generational diversity in the workplace includes the Baby Boomer generation was born between 1946 1964. People considered Generation X (or the Baby Bust) were born between the years 1965 to 1979. Also in the workplace are the Xennials who were born between 1975 to 1985. Finally, is the commonly discussed Millennials, Generation Y, Gen Next who entered the world between 1980 and 1994.

Young people in my workplace meetings!!!!

During the span of my career, I’ve been part of so many meetings I couldn’t begin to tell you how many. But, I’m noticing something a little different lately. It started just a few weeks ago.

Always being the early bird, I was waiting for a community project meeting to begin.

Then, all of a sudden, I perceived something fascinating about the other professionals entering the room. Each of them – I mean every single one of them – was young enough to be my offspring. YES! I’m old enough to have been “mom” to any one of the other professionals in the room! 

It was a serious “a-ha” moment for me as a professional. 

As the meeting went on, I began to think “How do I work effectively with these millennials”? I know I can’t be the only one pondering this phenomenon.

Generational diversity in the workplace

Honestly, I didn’t feel any particular way about being the oldest person in the room; I didn’t feel good about it nor did I feel bad. It was nothing more than a reality that seemed to sure to impact the work process, that’s all.

If you read Forbes, Harvard Business Review, or any other business site, you would think generational diversity in the workplace is Armageddon and the world as we know it is ending!

Trust me. It’s not that serious.

A lot of the problems are blamed on Millenials. I’ll talk about that later.

In the end, however, many articles confirm people my age (and older) are wondering the same thing I am: how can I work with people so incredibly different from me?

It’s important to remember generational diversity in the workplace isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination! Every generation since the beginning of time has had to relate to the older generation and the younger working together. 

But, there is something distinct about this current culture-war in today’s world.

The Millennials have completely changed the game to no fault of their own. I think it’s the influx of technology and their ability to master it rapidly is what is at the heart of the issue. What do you think is the “deal”?

Millennials, Technology and Tension

Think about it. Millennials grew up with all the technology other generations have to learn. So they are better at it! Go figure, right?

With that, you have workers remaining in the workplace much longer before retiring which means they have to learn new ways of doing things and new technology too. Few Boomers I’ve met are happy about that.

Blame pop culture for the workplace problems too!

Another source of tension could be our society’s inclination to “worship” all things youthful.  This youngster “worship” could produce a bit of insecurity among the more seasoned workers. 

Tension and conflict always accompany insecurity.

Each of the aforementioned can’t help but impact workplace cultures and how teams interact on a day-to-day basis, in my opinion.

Our generations are different…very different …from one another.

I don’t think any previous generation has had such a mindset gap like our current culture has.

Our generational diversity in the workplace impacts interactions and ultimately productivity because we each see the world (and work) so differently.

So much more than chronological years separate Millennials (folks who became adults in the 2000s) from Gen Xers (born from 1965 to 1976).

It’s our professional ideologies, ways of work, and world views that create the chasm that so intensely affects team cohesion. It makes management difficult. It makes collaboration difficult. It just makes work life difficult.

Workplace mores and norms among generations…

Generations have different opinions of what is and isn’t considered “appropriate.”

An example workplace attire.

I’m old enough to remember when women in the banking profession wore ONLY skirts (yes, skirts), dark suits, and enormous shoulder pads (think Golden Girls fashion).

The message I received (as a young professional) was women had to look like versions of she-men in order to be taken seriously.

Thankfully, those days are gone. However, the residue remains.

Many a career was launched with those same professional mores and they can still shape the philosophies of those who grew up with them, right?

I can’t tell you how long it took for me to grow accustomed to jeans in the workplace – LONG TIME! Now, I love it! This is one “win” for generational diversity in the workplace.

Younger coworkers are less inhibited…

Well, today’s young professionals are nothing like their stuffy predecessors. Not only do young women embrace their femininity, but some flaunt their sexuality in ways once taboo for us old folks.

Managers are between a rock and a hard place with this one.

Conversations of cleavage, tight clothes and short skirts have been the struggle of many a “human resources professional.”

“What to do?” they wonder. How in the world do they set workplace standards of dress without seeming (or being) sexist?

Do you think it’s sexist for company’s to require workers to dress without cleavage showing or too much skin?

Then there is this…

Aside from provocative attire, some managers complain Millienials also come to work dressed unreasonably casual. This leaves them wondering how to get younger team members to come to work dressed appropriately for the office

Millennials dress to casually is a problem.

Over a business lunch, a manager at a local school district asked me: “Do we actually have to write “no pajama bottoms” in the employee handbook these days?” We chuckled, but this is a real conundrum for those supervising some Millennials.

None of this is really a big deal.

When you think about it, clothes are a bit trivial and can be figured out in the big picture of it all. It really doesn’t take much to “fix” that type of problem really. All you need is some training and coaching.

Performance, however, is altogether different.

Say you have a person with bad workplace habits and a slothful approach to productivity. Maybe they come in late, ignore deadlines, or render sloppy work; now you have a REAL problem. Clothes? Bah, no biggie.

No amount of training can fix a lazy producer.

generational diversity at work

Another dimension of the “new-school” work style.

Question: should work still be done “at work”? Well, it depends on who you ask. I personally know Millennials who shun the old-school “chained-to-the desk” philosophy of work I’ve grown up with.

Instead, they prefer more, flexible, nomadic work environments. Be it a coffee shop, a library, or even their bed with a laptop in their lap, some swear they get more done away from the office than they do inside it. They find being away breeds productivity.

Millennials may prefer working remotely.  That's one of the elements of generational diversity in the workplace.

I think they may be right – at least the ones I’ve worked with. You never see them physically in the office, but they are “getting it in” as the youngsters say.  They are producing good work, reaching goals, and getting things accomplished!

After all, isn’t that what work is about – getting the work done? I think so and Millennials seem to do just that. They use fewer resources and tend to work “circles” around some of us oldsters!

I think it’s because they know how to leverage innovation and technology in order to be effective with less “stuff”. They may also use technology to stay in touch and for many of them, it all seems to work.

Now, for the way us older people work.

On the other hand, Boomers and some Xers totally dig the traditional workplace environments. Remember, Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. For them, you’re not at work until you walk through those doors, smell the brewing coffee, and sit down at a desk.

Unlike the minimalist Millenials, these Boomers possibly believe more is best – more hours at that office, more paper, more meetings, more office supplies, and more effort. I will probably anger some, but the Boomers may also be a bit more controlling than Millennials.

When it comes to meetings, they could maybe lean towards good old-fashioned, face-to-face meetings vs texting, video-conferencing, etc.  

They may think something isn’t official unless it’s written on a post-it and stuck to their computer monitor.  Boomers’ work drawers may be full of pens, boxes of paperclips, and even White-Out. Ok, scratch the last one. Are you old enough to remember White-Out?

White out is an old school thing
This is the modern version of White-Out.

To sum it all up, both of these generations get the job done. They will just approach it and reach it in different ways.

Gen-Xers in the workplaceMe! Me! Me!

So far, I’ve talked about some common Baby Boomer and Millenial workplace characteristics. Now, let’s “X” things up a bit.

Gen Xers (born from 1965 to 1976) on average tend to be more malleable than the generation preceding them.  I’m an “Xer” so I’ll use my voice. We Xers value the Boomers and their “take no prisoners” work ethic.

It’s not foreign to us because they likely trained us.  Still,  we’re close enough in age to the millennials to relate to them as well. Technology doesn’t intimidate us Xers at all; we embrace it. In fact, it had its roots in our generation.

I had my first computer when I was in middle school. It looked like a spaceship with its clunky, oversized monitor and loud, clacking keys, but it was the beginning of the computer age all the same.

We are often called the “sandwich” generation because we are right between the Boomers and the Millennials. We often have aging parents and are still raising kids too. To be fair, some Boomers are also called the “sandwich generation” in articles and research, but for the purposes of this post, I’m using it to describe the generation between Boomers and Millennials.

Again, as we think about generational diversity in the workplace, nothing much shakes us. We adapt easily and adjust to what is needed at the time.

As a result, there really isn’t much to say about us. We, Gen Xers, tend to collaborate easily whether online or face-to-face. Robin Reshawan wrote an article called “Generation X Characteristics in the Workplace” and says our collaborative nature is the result of our youth. She stated it this way: “during years without digital tools makes many Gen Xers comfortable” with partnering and collaborating.

We didn’t have texting, so we learned to call people or talk to them eye to eye. The same goes for problem-solving. We had to memorize times tables and theorems in order to calculate risks and probabilities. Still, we don’t hate the technology by any stretch, it’s just we don’t rely on it.

How we can all get along.

All three of us – Millennials, Boomers, and Gen Xers ultimately desire to be successful in the workplace. Everyone wants to contribute in meaningful ways. That’s our commonality.

Each staffer longs to feel valued for our contributions. We want to be successful.

Older workers yearn to be respected for the dues they have paid and the knowledge they have acquired over the years. Part of their definition of respect may be eyeballs on them during interactions so they don’t have to compete with devices.

wgenerational differences in the workplace and orking with people of different ages
Working with people of different ages – takes effort and a little knowledge about generational differences in the workplace.

The younger workers might long for leadership to trust them to produce good results without micromanagement or constantly questioning their methods. Nothing bugs a millennial more than being micromanaged.

Sadly, these needs are tricky to communicate, so folks may never discuss them at all and the tension endures.

That’s were the problem arise.

Perceptions almost always propagate confusion and misunderstanding.

Effective communication breeds empathy, compassion, and acceptance. Until you communicate with someone directly, you have no idea how they feel. You can only guess and a “guess” is not a reliable data source.

Millennials may perceive Boomers as rigid and antiquated. They may surmise Boomers are doing things all “wrong” while the Boomers may label Millennials as flaky, short-cutters trying to circumvent “tried and true” workplace systems.

For the most part, both viewpoints are wrong when they ascribe their “perceptions” to the masses.

In the end, you simply must talk to one another to see how they view the world. Until then, there will always be an “us” and “them” divide between Boomers, Millennials and even Gen Xers. At least that’s what I think.

I wish I could help (I think).

As a team-building training consultant, I get frequent requests for workshops to bridge that “great divide” between the generations.

That’s a “tall order” for training.

As I always say, training is not a cure-all. It’s a springboard.  It can launch a team in a new direction, but it is not a band-aid for misguided assumptions. That’s why I don’t like traditional diversity training modules.

When a manager or professional ponders “how do I work with millennials”, training may be the first thought but isn’t always the most logical first step.

The most logical step is to provide many ways for the generations to connect and talk to one another. It’s all about communication.  Unquestionably, Talking is the first step toward understanding.

[bctt tweet=”Communication is not just “talking”. It’s listening and hearing. ” username=”@TCBtheTrainer”]

How do I work with millennials …Boomers … or any age group for that matter?

Communication (facilitates understanding).

Flexibility (facilitates relationships).

Open-mindedness (facilitates acceptance).

That’s how you work with people – talk/listen, be willing to shift and change. Keep your mind open to new ways of work. That’s it in a nutshell – again, in my opinion.

Effective communication can halt silly misunderstandings and can [possibly] breed empathy.

For example, if I understand what you believe or think, maybe I can better understand your responses and reactions. 

Again, it all starts with communication. Allow training experiences to “open a door” to sharing.

At the same time, don’t assume it is a ‘one and done’ solution. It isn’t… by any stretch of the imagination. Teams and people change and evolve over time.

generational diversity in the workplace and learning from one another

Let me reiterate, clear communication is not just “talking”.

It’s listening and hearing. It’s trying to determine how your words reach my humanity.

That requires effort. You burn emotional calories as you work to understand someone else’s experience and point of view. It’s work regardless of the age.

Why I think generational differences in the workplace are a challenge…

The problem is never people seeing the world differently than see our own. No, not really. The ultimate problem is when we are ignorant of how they see and experience it.

Let me say it a different way. People can live in their own silos, do their own thing and everyone will get along. The problem comes when we are clueless about the very fact they are different.

As we get older, it’s easy to become unyielding and short-sided, isn’t it? You know, thinking our way is the only way.

The old people in my life used to call this being “stuck in one’s own ways”. I don’t want to be stuck. I want to expand. Being around different, and even opposing views helps us not be “stuck”. It equips us to be adaptable.

How to keep an open-mind…

That kind of flexibility and open-mindedness keeps us evergreen, growing, and relevant. Anything that isn’t growing is…DEAD. Don’t be a deadhead…at least not in this sense of the word.

We all have to keep our Boomer, Millennial, and Gen Xer minds open to new ideas and new ways of getting jobs accomplished. This may mean trying things we are not fully convinced will work at the start.

Yet, trying them all the same with the best intentions. Remember, there are millions of ways to accomplish tasks efficiently.  Ours may not be the best or most efficient. I think that’s why generational diversity in the workplace is a good thing. We can learn from each other. Do you agree?

Communication. Flexibility. Open-mindedness… those are the core values of strong teams. Once those core values are rooted in a group, then, we can focus on team cohesion.

Different aged women working with generational diversity in the workplace

Let me say I love being an “older person” in the workplace!

It’s kind of cool to be old enough to witness the workforce changing the way it is. But, it also means I have to change right along with it. The main thing to remember is to avoid generalizations. I tried to in this post. That’s why I used words like “often“, “usually“, etc.

I’m working on a multi-generational training module now. I hope it serves to get people talking and “connecting” in the office setting. We’ll see.

Ok. So, what do you think about working with other age groups?

Listen to an expert, Ray Jenkins.

Online Resources

Motivating Millennials Takes More than Flexible Work Policies

7 Ways Millennials Are Changing the Workplace for the Better

Working with different generations at work

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Leveraging the 4 personality styles to help you when working with different personalities in the workplace

What I do as a personality consultant and personality blogger…

Leveraging the 4 personality styles to help you when working with different personalities in the workplace.  I also discuss often how business personalities play a role in how you approach work and manage work personalities in general. I also answer the question” “how does personality influence communication at work?” Your temperament plays a role in everything. I love talking about it and exploring exactly how!

4 Replies to “Generational diversity in the workplace”

  1. Wow it’s quite strange to think of the different work approaches we’ve all grown up with. The way you describe the millenials is spot on to how I like to work.

    1. Yeah, I think they really thrive in a casual, free environment. I’m not a millennial, but my personality makes those types of workplaces great for me too.

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