“Each generation wants new symbols, new people, new names. They want to divorce themselves from their predecessors.”
In our previous post on generational diversity, we explored the differences between each of the five generations that are currently represented in the workforce. Today, we’re going to pivot—and figure out how we can all just get along in the workplace, rather than let our differences create conflict.
The Truth About Generations
It’s important to remember that a “generation” is, fundamentally, a social construct.
“Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge that holds that characteristics typically thought to be immutable and solely biological—such as gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality—are products of human definition and interpretation shaped by cultural and historical contexts.”
In other words, while generation is a very useful descriptor, we shouldn’t treat it as a fixed definition of someone born in a particular year—and while differences between generations look significant at a population level, they may be far less significant on an individual basis.
Moreover, these differences are far from insurmountable, and fixating on them overly much can be problematic—particularly in an environment such as a workplace, where people from across these generations need to be able to collaborate and get along.
Unfortunately, generational differences are more often portrayed in the media as contentious. Gen X was labeled by the Boomers as the “slacker” generation, which is hardly a flattering portrayal. Similarly, Millennials have frequently been mocked as “lazy” and “expecting participation trophies” for everything.
Then there’s “OK Boomer.” Younger generations are encouraged by the media to view Boomers as out of touch, stodgy… and, well, basically ruining everything. Boomers are blamed for draining Social Security, hastening global warming, and in the current wave of technology-facilitated remote work, resisting change that younger generations welcome.
Yikes. No wonder generations clash in the workplace.
Stereotypes Aside, Differences DO Exist—and the Reasons Why Matter
It is true that each generation tends to embody certain styles and expectations in the workplace. While we just established that fixating on differences is dicey, we do need to understand what they are—and WHY they are—in order to set them aside. Spoiler alert: It should come as no surprise that many of these differences revolve around technology.
The Silent Generation (Born Between 1925-1945):
We can’t blame the Silent Generation for feeling uncomfortable with technology; after all, even the youngest of this generation were well into middle age by the time technology permeated the workplace. This generation came of age without many of our modern conveniences and worked hard as a result. Also known as “traditionalists,” members of the Silent Generation typically want to see what they interpret as hard work and may not understand what that looks like for members of younger generations; for example, interpreting desire for flexible work arrangements as seeking to avoid work, because their generation had to be AT work in order TO work.
Baby Boomers (Born between 1946-1964):
Although younger than the Silent Generation, Boomers have a similar orientation towards more “traditional” workplace values: formality, face-to-face interactions, and hierarchy. Boomers also had to embrace technology in adulthood, so while certain aspects of technology were embraced, there may still be discomfort among many Boomers with respect to deeper tech dives. For example, while Boomers obviously use computers at work, they may prefer to edit documents by hand, rather than using track changes and document comparison programs that are readily available.
Generation X (Born Between 1965-1980):
In many ways, Gen X is a bridge generation. They are comfortable with technology, but reporting to older generations at work necessitated accepting their more traditional expectations. Gen X is more likely to embrace flexibility, but because they came of age during times of significant economic uncertainty, they may also be more resentful of Millennials and Gen Z, who they perceive as taking a laissez-faire attitude towards work.
Millennials (Born Between 1981-1996):
All but the oldest members of Gen Y grew up in a truly digital age and have little to no memory of a time before tech. Maybe this is why Boomers have such a complicated relationship with Millennials, and oof, is it complicated. Millennials grew up believing that they should pursue their passions, and feel much more strongly about finding meaningful, fulfilling work. They don’t buy into the idea that they should work hard merely for the sake of working hard—which is not to say that they don’t work hard, because they do, but they also value flexibility and work-life balance in a way that is unfamiliar to older generations.
Gen Z (Born Between 1997-2012):
The oldest Gen Zers are starting to move up in the workforce and want to be taken seriously. Gen Z leans even harder into finding meaning and purpose in their work, and are more willing to forgo traditional work incentives such as salary in favor of finding that meaning. Gen Z lives and breathes technology, and they know that work doesn’t have to happen in the office to get done. Boomers, and even Gen X, may think Gen Z doesn’t want to work, when the reality is that they want to work smart and flexibly in order to balance their lives.
Seeing the Best, Instead of Assuming the Worst, is the Key to Bridging Generation Gaps
It’s an unfortunate tendency of humans to ascribe hostile motives to behaviors or actions that we don’t understand. It’s a form of cognitive bias that leads us to pay more attention to negatives than positives, and like other cognitive biases, it very well could have an evolutionary explanation. It’s also the source of much of this generational conflict.
Generations have a hard time understanding each other because they lack shared experiences. The world was a very different place when Boomers were coming of age; Gen Z can’t comprehend growing up with rotary phones and TV channels numbering in the single digits, while Boomers are skeptical that digital communication can be as functional as in-person interaction.
To bridge these gaps in the workplace, members of all generations need to check their inclination to assume that these differences come from a bad place. Boomers don’t necessarily resist remote work because they don’t want younger generations to have work-life balance; they may truly fear that remote work will inhibit establishing strong working relationships and create inefficiency. Gen Z doesn’t necessarily rely more heavily on digital communication because they are disconnected from human engagement, but rather because it’s simply what they know.
Instead of assuming that we’re all out to get each other, let’s instead recognize that although we might be bringing different life experiences to work, we all (for the most part) have the same goal: success. We also need to recognize that success might look different depending on those life experiences, but each of our definitions could add significant value to a workplace, rather than detract.
The takeaway: Let’s all think the best of each other so we can get along. It might sound cheesy or idealistic, but is that really such a bad thing? Maybe we can prove Jim Morrison wrong, in the end.
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