Skip to main content
Business LibreTexts

13.5: Working across Generations

  • Page ID
    4181
  • What you’ll learn to do: Discuss different strategies for talking to individuals from a different generation

    We are shaped not only by our DNA but by our times. Imagine how different your priorities and values might be if your formative experience included the New Deal versus Watergate, space exploration versus the World Wide Web, WWII versus 9/11, or Civil Rights versus school shootings.

    Three people of different ages sitting on a bench. The person on the left is in the 30-40 year-old range, the person in the middle is in the 5-10 year old range, and the person on the left has a cane and is in the 60-75 year old range.

    Our methods of communication—the skills we develop and the tools we use—are also a product of our times and technologies. In this section, we will explore how generational differences manifest in the workplace, both in terms of language used and preferred methods of communication.

    learning outcomes

    • Discuss the language differences found across different generations
    • Discuss strategies for bridging intergenerational communication gaps

    Each generation is a subculture with a sense of reality based on formative world and national events, technological innovations and socio-cultural values. To understand how that experience impacts communication, it’s instructive to consider how the different generations view technology and communications media. The following examples are based on an analysis of generational differences[1]:

      Traditionalists Baby Boomers Generation X Millennials Generation Z
    Technology is . . . Hoover Dam The microwave Internet Hand-held devices Virtual
    Communicate via . . . Rotary phones Touch-tone phones Cell phones Internet & Text Social Media

    Two men of different ages sitting at a table at a coffee shop. On the left, an older man is reading from a Kindle, while on the right, a young man is reading a book.

    Every generation develops expertise with communication formats and media that reflect their situational reality. For example, Traditionalists tend to have a more formal communication style, with a strict adherence to written grammatical rules and a strong cultural structure. Baby Boomers tend to prefer a more informal and collaborative approach. Gen X communications tend to be more blunt and direct: just the facts. Millennial and Gen Z communication is technology-dependent. As an Ad Council article notes, these generations are driving a truncation of the English language, shortening words (e.g., totally becomes totes) and abbreviating phrases into one or two-syllable “words,” which may or may not be spoken aloud (e.g., FOMO for “fear of missing out” and TIL for “today I learned”).

    For additional perspective, see McCrindle Research “How to Speak Gen Z” infographic. These clippings have their roots in texting language: a shorthand that’s optimized for the communications media and immediate gratification expectations of mobile communication.

    texting

    Texting is a cross-generational trend—something that nearly all adults in America participate in. For perspective on texting, read onereach.com’s “45 Texting Statistics that Prove Businesses Need To Start Taking Texting Seriously.” A few excerpts, for perspective:

    1. Over 80% of American adults text, making it the most common cell phone activity. (Pew Internet)
    2. The average adult spends a total of 23 hours a week texting (USA Today)
    3. The average Millennial exchanges an average of 67 text messages per day (Business Insider)
    4. On average, Americans exchange twice as many texts as they do calls (Nielsen)
    5. Only 43% of smartphone owners use their phone to make calls, but over 70% of smartphone users text (Connect Mogul)

    Like all languages, “text speak” continues to evolve, with emoji and other graphic elements being the most recent additions. For more information, read “The New, New Way to Text,” an article on using emoji, emoticons and gifs for marketing.

    practice question

    You’re reflecting on the way one’s generation might impact communications. Which of the following best summarizes the generational impact on communications?

    • There are no observable differences in generational style or communication tools.
    • Generational influences are seen in both communication style and communication media.
    • Texting and digital media tools are not valid forms of business communication.
    Answer

    Generational influences are seen in both communication style and communication media.

    Bridging the Generation Gap

    Each generation brings not only a frame of reference but also a set of competencies—and expectations—based on how they view the world and their place in it. The challenge for both businesses and individuals is that we now have five generations in the workforce. Differences in generational communication style and media are, effectively, language barriers. To the extent that individuals can’t translate, the communication gaps are a hindrance to effective collaboration and, by extension, achievement of critical goals and objectives. The communication disconnect can also affect employee morale and productivity.

    The opportunity in this situation is to leverage specific generational strengths and decrease points of friction. The best case scenario is to create a culture and opportunities that encourage cross-generational sharing and mentoring. As Nora Zelevansky wrote in a piece for Coca-Cola: “In order to master intergenerational communication, it is necessary to understand some broad generalizations about the generations and then move beyond those to connect as individuals.”[2]

    Two men and one woman talking to each other. All people in the image vary in age from late 20's to late 40's.

    In a related trend, the model of talent management is changing. As discussed in a Sodexo report on 2017 Workplace Trends, we’re moving to a model of shared learning, where workers of all ages contribute to each other’s growth and development.[3] Indeed, the researchers identified “intergenerational agility” as a critical aspect of the employee and employer value proposition. Business benefits of intergenerational learning include increased efficiency, productivity and competitive positioning. Two statistics that suggest the culture and communication gaps can be bridged:[4]

    • 90 percent of Millennials believe that Boomers bring substantial experience and knowledge to the workplace
    • 93 percent of Baby Boomers believe that Millennials bring new skills and ideas to the workplace.

    The diversity of the intergenerational workplace isn’t just a development—it’s a creative opportunity.

    Professor Mariano Sánchez of the University of Granada in Spain sees the opportunity in cultivating ”generational intelligence;” specifically, “organizing activities that raise generational awareness, connect generations and help them work better together—exchanging knowledge, ideas, skills and more to enhance the broad skill sets everyone needs in today’s jobs.”[5]

    According to Jason Dorsey, Millenial and Gen Z researcher and co-founder of The Center for Generational Kinetics, “The key is getting each person to recognize that everyone has different communication skills that can be harnessed to best support the organization.”[6]Incorporating multiple communication media in meetings and to facilitate ongoing discussion/collaboration allows members of different generations to share expertise and demonstrate the value of a particular medium. Selecting technology that supports multiple ways of communicating and collaborating can also leverage collective strengths and create fertile ground. For example, using a videoconferencing platform allows for participants to connect visually and participate virtually, with audio, screen sharing and recording capabilities.

    practice question

    Your work team includes members from multiple generations. Which of the following is the best approach to bridging intergenerational communication gaps:

    • Assume your communication style and preferred tools will prevail and stick to it!
    • Understand the broad generational generalizations and then move beyond those to connect as individuals.
    • Identify a person's generation and apply the associated generalizations.
    Answer

    Understand the broad generational generalizations and then move beyond those to connect as individuals.

    1. West Midland Family Center. "Generational Differences Chart." Web. 28 Jun 2018.
    2. Zelevansky, Nora. "Bridging the Gap at Work: Improving Intergenerational Communication." Coca Cola Journey, 01 Dec 2014. Web. 26 June 2018.
    3. Sodexo. "2017 Global Workplace Trends." Web. 26 June 2018.
    4. The Hartford. "Generations at Work." Web. 26 June 2018.
    5. Sodexo. "2017 Global Workplace Trends Report." Web. 26 June 2018.
    6. Zelevansky, Nora. "Bridging the Gap at Work: Improving Intergenerational Communication." Coca Cola Journey, 01 Dec 2014. Web. 26 June 2018.