Finding common ground between generations Intergenerational communication is key for success

Consider the following statement from a millennial-aged employee in her mid 20s or early 30s. We’ll call her Jane.

“I spend my days in work meetings, whether I am working remotely or in the office. Then they expect me to spend my evenings doing the actual work. My manager doesn’t understand. Nothing we start ever seems to get finished and more just gets piled on.”

Now compare this one from an older generation X employee in his 40s or 50s whom we’ll call Mike.

“How do I drill into millennials’ heads the concept of accountability? We can’t all just leave at 5:00. There is a lot of work to be done.”

Different generations, like in this family, bring different viewpoints. | Patricia Dunnigan

Mike and Jane were two of 6,500 participants in a 2016 workshop by a Canadian learning centre, Donohue Learning, led by Dr. Mary Donohue. Her team surveyed Canadian and U.S. companies, honing in on perhaps the most pervasive yet least understood feature in today’s workplace: miscommunication. The solution lies in what Donohue calls generational literacy.

She calls boomers the cultural capital of the workplace, millennials the communication capital, and generation X the intellectual capital. And communication among them needs some work.

Only 23 per cent of study participants felt they were learning from, or engaged with, other generations at work. Three-quarters felt disengaged from their colleagues and their work. Only seven per cent were fully engaged and reported no problem with generational communication.

To foster intergenerational communication, Donohue calls on companies to shift from a manage-me culture—the independent, self-driven learning culture of generation X—to the develop-me culture—the community-focused, sharing-based learning culture embraced by millennials.  

Developing intergenerational communication is important, particularly in workplaces. | rawpixel.com on Unsplash

For instance, managers will migrate from annual evaluations with millennials to scheduling short bursts of time with their team, or drop the PowerPoint deck in favour of problem-solving meetings.

And Donohue charges today’s employers to pay more attention to generation X.

“They’re your bread and butter. They have worked through more recessions than their parents or grandparents ever did. … Gen X has to manage both boomers and millennials, and they are getting really tired,” she said.

Her other big message is that generation X is getting bypassed because all the chatter in leadership development is about millennials and retiring boomers.

Communication is key to understanding people who grew up in different generations. | Marcel Lajeunesse

“Let’s be honest: for most organizations, no millennial is going to be tapped for a top job unless it is an Internet or marketing firm, yet many of these organizations are spending money on understanding their millennials and helping boomers feel good as they retire.”  

It seems there is merit in the idea that boomers and their grandchildren are grabbing the focus of employers, economists and researchers, not to mention the media. A web search shows boomers are indeed the focus not only of the media, but also of researchers and urban planners. No surprise there. We always knew they’d be sweeping up attention as they march through the timescape.

And the millennials? The focus on digital media and marketing highlights by default the experience of today’s youth and young adults.

There’s a lot of material on how digital technology is influencing young minds. Add to that millennial’s comfort with examining their own experience, such as this offering in The Baltimore Sun in June, titled 10 personality traits of the millennial generation – Can we have that yesterday. The author explains, “we used to take the time to drive to the DVD store to get that DVD, now if we can’t stream it instantly, it’s dead to us.”

Generation X seems left out in the cold, or in the semi-warm refuge of the porch. A study by Yahoo Canada last year refers to the powerful-but-overlooked generation. The author says the middle-aged cohort of generation Xers are often ignored by marketers. Another from June 2017, by visioncritical.com, is titled 13 stunning stats on Gen X – the forgotten-yet-powerful generation.

I was reminded of the movie Ordinary People. Dealing with his deepening depression alone, the oldest son finally confronted his father about why his younger brother got the focus of attention. His dad, played by Donald Sutherland, confessed that his oldest seemed so self-reliant. “You were always so hard on yourself . . . I never worried about you,” he said.

Different generations may have different views in places like work. | rawpixel.com on Unsplash

I’m on the cusp in the generations, somewhere between the boomers and Gen X. I remember my siblings and I plunging our arms out the station wagon window to grab the wild rye as our dad careened along prairie roads. The more your arm was yanked back, the more fun it was. Seatbelts? They were stuffed unused into the car seat.

As generations become more sharply defined, a natural outcome of our fast-changing world, we can’t afford to want everyone to be the same. Communication is something we all can work on.

Featured Image: Different generations may have different views in places like work. | rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Kate Wilson

Kate took up the reporter's pad and pen while living in northern Alberta. The writing bug stuck, and the next 20 years were spent covering everything from local politics to community happenings. She lives in Alberta Avenue with her daughter.

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