The Multigenerational Workforce: Can’t We All Just Get Along?
If you read any sort of corporate trade media, you can barely go a day without encountering an article from the baby boomer or Gen. X perspective about how lazy and entitled millennials are. Conversely, you’ll probably find just as many articles penned by millennials about how older generations of workers are resistant to technology and cling to outdated practices.
As millennials age into management roles, the differences between the generations often become even more pronounced. Moreover, as each generation’s opinion of the others spreads, candidates, employers, managers, and executives begin developing preconceived notions about each other before they even meet or work together. It is up to companies to foster corporate cultures that fight generational stereotypes by providing opportunities for workers of all generations to work together and learn from each other.
Battling Millennial Stereotypes
In general, millennials want a healthy work/life balance, fair pay, and recognition for the work they do. Unfortunately, these desires and the motivations behind them often get lost in translation.
Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of career management consultancy Keystone Associates, is very familiar with the inaccurate views older workers often have of younger talent. According to her, the common misconceptions older workers have about the millennial generation include but are not limited to:
- “They don’t want to do the work to get a promotion or take on additional responsibilities.”
- “They lack work ethic and follow-up.”
- “They don’t know how to have a conversation.”
- “They are always on their phones.”
- “They are difficult to work with because they want older workers to adapt to them instead of vice versa.”
Worse, Mattson notes that some people hold these opinions “based on what is being written about [millennials] without having any direct experience working with them.”
What these older generations often fail to understand is that millennials have reasons for feeling the way they do. They want a healthy work/life balance because they watched their parents work long hours away from their families. They want fair pay and promotion opportunities because they are buried in student loan debt that older executives never had to worry about. They want recognition because when they are engaged at work, they enjoy their jobs more and feel like they’re really contributing.
Battling Boomer and Gen. X Stereotypes
That being said, millennials aren’t innocent. The generational side-eye occurs in both directions.
“Millennials can be frustrated with older workers not using or willing to learn and adapt to new technology as a way of doing their work and communicating,” says Mattson. “Younger workers also feel older managers can be too rigid in how they believe the job needs to be done, are inflexible about work hours, and are not as up to date with technology as their millennial workers may be.”
Millennials grew up in an era when new technologies arrived constantly, forcing them to learn to quickly adapt to advances, but older generations didn’t have that experience. It makes sense that some older workers wouldn’t be as comfortable with technology as millennials. What millennials don’t always grasp is that older workers, managers, and employees stand upon mountains of experience. While the way a boomer executive accomplishes something might not always make sense to a younger worker, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
That’s the lesson to be learned by both sides of the conflict. While older and younger employees see things differently, there is not always necessarily a wrong or right way to get something done.
“Separate generations are at different stages of their careers, which leads to different needs, wants, and goals,” says Mattson.
Finding a Solution
The key to getting past preconceptions is simple: Make different generations work together.
“Recognize that if there isn’t a problem now, there could be in the near future, so get ahead of potential challenges by looking at companies that are doing a great job integrating different generations,” Mattson says. “Offer opportunities for different generation of workers to come together. Include leaders of the company [in these opportunities] to discuss successes and challenges. This needs to be supported by the senior leadership of the company, not middle management. Millennials welcome visibility from the top.”
Coming up with ways to get younger and older employees to interact isn’t as complicated as it may seem.
“Find ways to bring differing generations together for a project or social activity that will show [everyone] how differing approaches to a situation can be challenging but also rewarding,” Mattson says. “Encourage using different modes of communication throughout the company. Perhaps implement something fun, such as ‘Face-to-Face Wednesday,’ where colleagues and managers have face-to-face conversations. The millennials might not like this, but baby boomers would. Balance this with ‘Texting Thursday’ where everyone uses texting at least once during the day as the mode of communication.”
The key is to be all-inclusive while nudging everyone out of their comfort zones to foster understanding of different viewpoints.
“The solutions need to consider everyone … without losing focus on the business, with results toward growth,” Mattson says.