Embrace Generational Differences

By Liz Bentley

During the holiday season, we are all given a wonderful opportunity – that is, to observe and learn from different generations with a new mindset. As we come together with family and friends to celebrate, our generational approaches will be ever-present in our interactions. This could surface in how the youngest of the group – the Gen Yers – operate their smartphones at lightning speed; or it could be displayed in the way the Traditionalists (the eldest generation) keep up with family traditions.

Of course, as individuals we all bring our own personality and family history to the table, but our formative years have imprinted upon all of us a distinct generational stamp. This stamp is a combination of the demographics, politics, social events, financial environment, heroes and headlines from the times in which we grew up.

The Generations in Action

When managed to its full potential, the mix of generations can create a more innovative and successful environment. However, the reality is that in many places, it’s not working. People are struggling and experiencing inter-generational tensions. Chaotic outcomes are often due to differences in each generation’s perceptions, expectations, values and approaches to work. Rapid changes in technology and communication are further increasing the divide.

Here are some examples of classic breakdowns that impact efficiency and effectiveness:

Traditionalists (born between 1925-1945) don’t like to work around the clock. They grew up with set work hours (e.g., 9-5). Emails at night and on the weekends seem intrusive. They believe in hierarchy and authority figures who deserve respect because of their position and experience. Boomers and Gen Xers may find them rigid and set in their ways.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) live to work, which the other generations may view as being workaholics. Boomers like conversations and prefer meetings in person, which may bother Gen Xers, who prefer email, and Gen Yers, who like FaceTime and Skype. Both may feel that Boomers have too many unnecessary meetings clogging up the day. Boomers also like to talk on the phone and leave voice messages to which the other generations rarely listen.

Gen Xers (born between 1965-1980) work to live; they like flexible work hours and schedules. Boomers may feel they don’t work hard enough. They also may think that Gen Xers question authority too much and don’t display enough respect. Gen Y see Gen Xers as too cynical and pessimistic.

Gen Yers (born between 1981-2000) need constant feedback. This may exhaust both Boomers and Gen Xers who feel Y’s are only looking for praise (another trophy) not growth. Gen Y’s want to be promoted when their work is well done. They are accustomed to being rewarded for their success and don’t understand why they can’t move up the ladder quicker.

When these types of breakdowns occur, we tend to blame “personality differences” as the culprit, without realizing the impact generational drivers have upon all of us. For greater workplace success, it is imperative that we bridge this divide. Here are three key strategies to doing so:

  1. Create a greater self-awareness of your own generation to understand why you respond and react to your environment in the way you do.
  2. Make a concerted effort to have empathy for the other generations’ backgrounds and collective memories. This will help you see why they have the values, communication styles and leadership styles they do.
  3. Embrace the fact that each generation has many things to offer that can change your life in a positive way.

Leverage Each Generation’s Strengths

My family’s annual Thanksgiving football game is a fun example of the generational styles in action. My whole extended family gets involved – from age 7 to 82. The Boomers of the group like to be in charge; they feel they have the most experience since they have been around the longest (in their mind). They make the teams, dictate the huddle and rely on tried-and-true plays for success. The Gen Xers let the Boomers be in charge if it’s going well; if not, they jump in to mix it up. The Gen Yers for the most part get along. They enjoy being part of the team and they press for more creative plays along the lines of “just try to get open.” Every year, we have tons of laughs and memories; I think the secret lies in how we embrace our different styles with the common goal of creating an experience (and of course winning the game).

As you go into this holiday season, look for your own opportunities to bridge the generations. Reach out and tap into their expertise. Each generation has signature strengths from which we all can learn and grow.

Traditionalists & Boomers have wisdom and experience. They have a lot of value to share and they are very open to sharing it.

Gen Xers are filled with new ideas. They bridge the gap between the Boomers who have all the experience and the Ys who are tech savvy. They are the perfect bridge to meld wisdom with technology. They also have an adaptable style; they are willing to accept innovation and change.

Gen Yers have an open, creative and adaptable style. They are great team players and are willing to talk to you and work with you. They are optimistic, extremely innovative, and use technology as a way of life in a way that no other generation does or understands. They are easy-going but can be hard working. They understand the importance of feedback and its value as constant course correction.

Seize the Moment

This thought is particularly poignant for me as my 78-year-old Aunt died this week. As a Traditionalist, she influenced my life in many powerful ways. I will not only miss her presence, but will miss her style of living and thinking that her generation embodied, such as her thank you notes written in perfect script, calling me by my formal name, sitting for tea in the afternoon with china and cookies to discuss the topics of the hour, and always being dressed for the occasion.

Don’t let this holiday season pass you by without embracing generational differences and using them to grow. Ask an elder to tell a story from his or her life (so as to cherish this generation while we have them with us) or a Gen Yer to recommend a useful new app. If you tap into the different generations which surround you, you will be enlightened with what you discover. Be sure to share your own expertise and wisdom, and make this holiday season one of growth and gratitude.