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The Intergenerational Communications Gap at Work

 

That there is an intergenerational communication gap shouldn’t come as surprise. Many people experience it directly.
 

And, 'twas ever thus:

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” [1]

 

The intergenerational communication gap in the workplace has been getting more attention recently. But how real is it? And, if it exists, what to do about it? In this piece I look at the things people can do to improve communication between the generations.
 

Communication—after healthy productive working relationships, and an effective leadership culture—is the third biggest people-challenge for any organisation. You would hope more organisations had got it right by now: creating good communication processes and channels is a primary leadership role. And, of course, plenty of businesses have done this. When I worked for M&S in the 1980s, the communication culture was exemplary, any gaps only existing in isolated pockets.
 

So those workplaces where there is good, consistent communication overall are unlikely to have an intergenerational communication gap (by definition). The question is, how can the remaining workplaces raise their game?
 

As ever, insight and understanding are the first requirements.

 

Three (or five) generations

Although it is usually said that three generations are employed in the business world, it’s useful to consider the generations either side of the main three:
 

  • baby boomers
  • generation X
  • millennials, or generation Y.


  1. Some individuals from the generation before the baby boomers (the ‘Silent Generation’, according to some) are also in the workplace—often in positions of seniority, authority and power (for examples, in the UK, Lord Heseltine, born 1933, still active in business and politics; in the US, Warren Buffett, born 1930).
     
  2. Baby boomers were born during the ‘baby boom’ which followed the second world war, approximately between the years 1946 and 1964; they are currently (2015) aged roughly 50 to 69 [2].
     
  3. Generation X people were born from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. The name comes from a sociology book on British youth, Generation X [2] and was popularised by Douglas Coupland in the title of his 1991 novel [3][4].
     
  4. Millennials, or Generation Y, by our definition, are roughly those people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. (There is some variation in the date ranges used by commentators.)
     
  5. The next generation is being born now. The oldest of them must be 15 or so, and will be entering further and higher education in the next few years. Employers need to prepare for their arrival and consider how best to integrate them into the team.

     

The key

The key to formulating a strategy to deal with an intergenerational communication gap is to understand that the way people are—their beliefs, attitudes, feelings, behaviour and, of course, communication—were all set down when they were young. The collective experience of baby boomers, say, is far more consistent between individuals of that generation than is the experience of a baby boomer compared to that of a millennial. Likewise, the collective experience of millennials is relatively consistent.

A typical baby boomer

Consider a baby boomer born in, say, 1950. For the first five years of its life, the baby’s deep personality characteristics are formed (of course, they go on forming, but the majority is done in this period). In the UK, the baby is living in a family almost certainly with two parents.
 

The parents may well still be recovering from the effects of the war; one parent, usually the father, would have been on active service. Given that conscription didn’t end until 1960, it is entirely possible that, if the father was too young to serve in the war, he was nevertheless in the armed forces away from home. The baby may well be soaking up ideas and feelings from its mother of loss, absence or even abandonment, and loneliness.
 

Food rationing persisted after the war until 1954, so our infant baby boomer also experienced the effects of food shortages in his/her first five years. Not just feeling hungry, the child would have absorbed notions of scarcity, of there being not enough to go around.
 

Now, fast forward to puberty, between ages 10 and 17, say. This is the second period in someone’s life when their personality is formed in large part: now it is the more outgoing part, the part more about other people. In addition to personal bodily changes, the child becomes increasingly aware of the cultural and social scene around it.
 

And, of course, the sixties delivered seismic changes compared with the fifties, the forties, the thirties... Hippies, rebellion and idealism soaked the individual’s experience (it certainly soaked mine!). Meanwhile new forms of media were being developed and existing ones refined: television was more sophisticated and broadcast for more hours (colour was introduced—inevitably!—in that annus mirabilis, 1967); radio spawned pirate stations and the vinyl single and LP became the formats of choice for the dissemination of popular music. Baby boomers are associated with this counterculture, with the civil rights movement in the US, and with the feminist movement of the seventies.
 

The typical baby boomer today has not lost those rebellious and idealistic streaks. He or she still hopes they’ll “die before I get old”, to quote The Who in the song My generation (1965) (only perhaps with not quite such conviction).
 

Today, the baby boomer, partly through age, is often financially secure, owns his/her own house and has discretionary income to spend on luxuries (clothes, holidays and so on) which many of their parents could only dream of at their age.
 

But, many baby boomers still carry their earliest influences as baggage; there is a tension between these deep notions of scarcity and the “let it all hang out” attitude of the sixties.

 

A typical millennial

Passing over Generation X, only through lack of space, think about someone born in, say, 1990.
 

Their parents may well be affected by the recession of the time (it was at its height in 1991 and 1992). Unemployment and social discontent were major factors in rioting that broke out all over the UK. Depression (no job, or a risk of no job) must have been the order of the day in many households.
 

In the UK, the number of divorces in 1950 was 30,870. In 1990, it was 153,386 [5]. Statistically, a child was more than five times as likely to be in a family where parental relationship difficulties had resulted, or will result, in divorce. Of course, separation through divorce is entirely different to separation by virtue of active service (even with the risk of death that that might bring).
 

In 1993, the two-year old James Bulger was tortured and murdered by two ten-year old boys. The effect this had on parents throughout the UK has been underemphasised. It brought an increase in protection, in ‘cosseting’, of many children by their parents that was out of all proportion to any increased risk to their lives (which was zero, the perpetrators having been caught and prosecuted) [6].
 

Again, fast forward to puberty, between ages 10 and 17, say (2000 and onwards). By this time, electronic communications media had advanced apace. If smartphones and ipads had yet to arrive on the market, teenagers were still able to enclose themselves in their bedrooms and interact with other teenagers in their bedrooms. Parents may not have understood what their offspring were up to but, at one level, it suited them just fine that they weren’t out on the streets at risk from assault or worse. (Facebook was launched 2004, as was Myspace. [7].)
 

The effect on people of this age has been to cut them off from much social interaction that was the norm in their parents’ and grandparents’ days. A friend is someone whose name you tick a box next to; they can be ‘unfriended’ a moment later.
 

Of this generation, Dr Lynda Shaw has written,
 

Teachers and parents alike talk about money, the global economy and environmental issues and other incredibly important topics. They are hard-working, but although many have had tough lives personally, from the general point of view of living in times of peace and plenty, a lot of them have never had the opportunity to learn tenacity and are therefore less resilient. Added to which, the fact that we no longer fix or mend things, we simply replace with new, fuels a throwaway culture of transience.” [8]

 

Communicating with each other

There are a number of principles of effective communication which are worth thinking about [9]:
 

Recognise that, in many ways, the other person is different from you

Faced with the need to communicate with someone of a different generation, the more we understand what has shaped their beliefs about themselves and the world, the more we are able to shape our communications to meet their needs (see above). Baby boomers are likely to prefer emails; millennials go for more up to date media.
 

Recognise that, in many ways, the other person is just like you

There is a risk of taking this separation of the generations too far. A webpage [10] offers “23 surefire tips to retire the stereotypes” when communicating with millennials at work. Yet many of the ideas are valid for anyone. Who does not appreciate wit and honesty, like feedback and constructive criticism, and want to communicate their needs?
 

However, some differences can be noted. For example:
 

  1. Millennials tend to be more available after business hours. This is unhealthy for them and exploited by managers and bosses who demand that availability whether or not it is freely given. Nevertheless a baby boomer needs to be alert that a younger colleague may call them in the evening and expect a response.
     
  2. Millennials juggle multiple conversations. Again, not such a good thing for them. Apart from the disrespect shown to all those with whom they are trying to communicate, there is no evidence that this is more effective than managing one conversation after the other. However baby boomers, for example, have to expect that this is a millennial’s approach and modify their communication appropriately (structure the conversation in sections and use self-contained sentences).
     
  3. They don’t like face-to-face communication. Given the reasons sketched above, this isn’t surprising. But, it is a bad idea. Face to face communication between two people generates oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’ [11], in both of them, particularly if it is supplemented by a handshake, light touching (of a forearm, say), eye contact and so on. Someone from another generation may have to work harder to get engagement and empathy from a millennial.
     

Conclusions

As Nora Zelevansky observes,
 

“What is most important, is to accept each type of person for his or her strengths and think of ways to connect that work better for more people. If Millennials are comfortable using new tech, Gen Y is accustomed to seeing people when talking on the phone, and Baby Boomers are good in person, consider using Skype or Google Hangout more frequently.” [12]

 

Differences in communication preference exist between the generations. People need to understand and address them if effective communication is to take place within a business. However they represent just one of many types of communication preference that people at work have.
 

For example, Carl Jung identified ninety years ago that people process information in four different ways, each person favouring one way over the others. These might be labelled thinking, feeling, knowing (ie, intuition) and sensing (ie, kinaesthetic input). Speak to a feeling person as if they were a thinker, and they will rapidly become frustrated and switch off (whatever the age gap between you).
 

Reflect an understanding that someone is motivated towards positive goals, rather than away from negative problems, say, and you have a powerful tool with which to manage them.
 

The most effective way to ensure that communication issues are minimised is for the management team to take the responsibility of promoting good communication practices by setting good examples based on their understanding of what’s going on.
 

Roll this up into a single ‘take away’, a single principle of effective communication that will serve everyone well:
 

Communicate with the other person in the way that they need you to; not in the way that you want to.

 

Jeremy Marchant is an associate of Akonia Ltd, and will be delighted to discuss how these issues affect your business.

jeremy.marchant @ akonia.com . 07 970 269 170

 



References

 

 

by Jeremy Marchant . © 2015 Akonia Ltd

jeremy.marchant @ akonia.com . 07 970 269 170

www.akonia.com/gradstart . freephone 0800 619 9697