With people living longer (there are currently seven living generations) and the retirement age increasing, there appears to be more of a gap between the generations than in the past. As a baby boomer I remember the slogan from the 60s “don’t trust anyone over the age of 30.” And there was a lot of dialog about the generation gap. But after the end of the Viet Nam war those differences seemed to go away, especially in the work place.
Today we have at least five generations in the workforce:
◦ iGen, aka Generation Z: born 1996 and after
◦ Millennials, aka Generation Y: born 1977 to 1995
◦ Generation X: born 1965 to 1976
◦ Baby Boomers: born 1946 to 1964
◦ Traditionalists: born 1945 and before
The gaps between each generation tend to increase along with the rapid advances in technology. The older a person is, the harder it becomes to adjust to these advances. Those of us baby boomers fortunate enough to work in high tech over the years have been able to stay in lock step with technology, social media, etc. even though the use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. still baffles us, as if other people are really interested in your extremely personal information.
We have long known that adopting a change varies among people. Individuals typically fall in to one of these five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. And the younger you are, the easier it is to adjust and embrace change. Two year olds know how to use smartphones and tablets. But there is a price to pay.
The problem that arises with technological advances is that it has become a barrier/obstacle to human interaction. Today people are more focused on using their smartphones or tablets and talking with their “virtual” friends than actually conversing face-to-face with real people. Sending a text has taken precedence over making a quick phone call. The danger is that it is so easy to be misunderstood with text and offending people. When you have an actual face-to-face conversation, then you pick up on all kinds of signals: body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. that provide additional information making it much easier to communicate and be understood. There is a fundamental human need to feel valued and accepted, but the “virtual” nature of today’s communication creates potential conflicts and a lack of accountability. For example, take a few minutes to read a news article or post on the web and the comments people make. Those providing comments often do not respect boundaries, some comments are extremely inflammatory, and there are no consequences or accountability for this behavior.
When trying to communicate with someone, there is the potential that trading texts, messages, emails, etc. back and forth can consume much more time and effort than required for a short conversation. Consequently, millennials and iGen have created a new language, they talk and type with their thumbs, and they have become the force behind the changing business environment, including office etiquette and office attire. And legible handwriting is now a lost art.
Millennials in today’s workforce are more racially and ethnically diverse than prior generations, and they have become more segmented as an audience aided by the rapid expansion in Cable TV channels, satellite radio, the Internet, e-zines, etc. With the speed of the internet and instant global access, this has led the millennial generation to be similarly flexible and changing in its fashion, style consciousness, and where and how they communicate with everyone.
Millennials are incredibly sophisticated with technology and immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches, as they not only grew up with it all, they’ve seen it all and have been exposed to it since early childhood.
The Baby Boomers have done a disservice to these younger generations by creating the soccer mom phenomenon where everyone gets a trophy. Many millennials have unrealistic expectations with working with people and growing a business. There is an expectation that they are entitled to success and people should just accept what they produce or how they act. For example, look at a few business web sites and discover how difficult it can be to find contact information. (Facebook does not provide a telephone number). Many times there is a lack of a physical address, telephone number, etc. At best there is a form to submit a question or a generic information email address. Many business owners have removed the contact information because they have received unsolicited business spam. The problem is that the lack of information tends to build barriers and isolates the business from the work place and potential customers, thereby de-personalizing the interactions. Potential customers can feel that they are not worthy of doing business with the company.
Another issue with technology is that it becomes a constant distraction at work, at home, and in public. The constant use has lead to the addictive nature of the devices and lack of interpersonal interaction and socializing. Municipalities are passing laws restricting phone use while driving, and some are considering preventing texting when walking as people have been injured. In addition, technology has led to the problem of millennials rarely being focused on one task; their attention becomes split between multiple tasks and distractions 24/7. This behavior makes it very difficult to deliver on time and with the required quality to meet customer expectations. And we are now witnessing that technology and the constant advancement of the functions also leads to relationship strains, hardships, and accountability issues.
These issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Technology is great, but people, emotions, feeling, interactions, etc. are paramount.
Open dialogs, coaching, mentoring, training sessions, and listening to experienced thought leaders will go a long way to bridging these generation gaps. Teaching people how to communicate across generations and not marginalize people because of the age differences is vitally important for continued growth and success. It is laughable when you hear that a company has employed senior people and you come to discover that everyone is roughly the same age.
In addition, companies and organizations have to change their work environments to encourage interactions between the generations and motivate people to communicate with respect.
Of course there are other actions that executives can take to address this looming problem. But the points above have proven critical over the years since they require executive authority, leadership, commitment, active support, coaching, inclusiveness, and emotional intelligence.
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Henry Schneider is the owner and principal consultant for PPQC, a small elite, highly specialized consulting company that rapidly delivers analysis and tailors solutions to maximize an organization’s earning potential. We help companies strike the balance between people, process, and tools by leveraging extensive experience across more than a dozen industry sectors.
Pat Reda is the owner of The Business Talent Coach, an International Coaching Company specializing in Executive, Emotional Intelligence/EQ-I, Performance, and Career and Outplacement Coaching. She also provides Supervisor, Manager and Executive Leadership Development and Training.