By Paula Sparks

Over the years, there has been an ebb and flow of the conversation around generational expectations in the workplace. I recall that it seemed to be a big deal when Millennials entered the workplace with a plethora of new expectations and how to manage them. In our workplace environments today, we add Generation Z and the new perspectives on workplace styles and expectations they bring. And, while 2024 brings the largest number of individuals in the United States who will reach retirement age (nearly 4.1 million Americans turning 65 in 2024), many plan to stay in the workforce for a variety of reasons. All this to say, with this wide array of generations and differing perspectives, workplace culture is now more complex than ever before.

Differences in Generational Values

Purdue Global recently completed a study that delves into the intricacies of different generations’ values, differences, beliefs, and worldviews and the most common stereotypes associated with each generation:

I grew up on the cusp between two generations – the Baby Boomers and Generation X. I adopted technology, was a latchkey kid, and still love 1970/1980s music (which is considered classic now). I was on the tail end of Baby Boomers and at the beginning of Generation X.  My first job was in an office setting at the age of 16 where I was deemed as the ‘kiddo’, ‘baby’, ‘honey’, ‘sweetie’ of the workplace, and the bulk of my managers were in the Traditionalist era.  By the time I retired from working at two different organizations 40 years later, I was considered the “office mom” with every generation within our functional area and loved the broad diversity of thought and workstyles. I have watched how generational nuances can become more of a scarcity mindset (us vs. them) versus an abundance mindset (we) and harm the workplace from being productive.

Stereotypes abound when it comes to generational expectations. Every generation above us has an opinion on what we could do better, what we need to change, or something more negative around a behavior exhibited by ours or others’ demographic group. Is it because the change different generations provoke feelings too uncomfortable to confront or adapt to? Is it too much energy to get to know others from different points of view? Or is it simple misunderstandings?

Identifying Potential Misunderstandings

Well, let’s start with a few of the commonalities within generations. While all generations can agree that these changes have benefits, there may be differences in the way they are perceived in the workplace:

Workplace changes Potential for misunderstanding
Technology in the workplace – can help individuals work smarter and be more efficient It can be deemed as negative when it comes to a feeling of lack of social conversational skills
Work life balance Generations were likely brought up with different views of commitment to work vs home life 
Meaningful work, feeling valued, and having a sense of purpose It’s more common for younger generations to seek meaningful work and be willing to leave a position sooner to find it elsewhere
A workplace where there are boundaries, clarity on why decisions are made, having a voice, and understanding deadlines It’s now much more expected and necessary for retention of talent, this may be a contradiction to a “just problem-solve and figure it out” mentality
Having ability to work from home and avoid a commute or having to relocate It’s now much more expected and necessary for retention of talent, but for some it may feel like entitlement

 

There may be more sizeable differences in the way things are said and done.  

Workstyle preferences Ability to adapt
Face-to-face meetings feel antiquated Face-to-face meetings versus video platforms and work-at-home options. It may look different, but it’s still face-to-face with a different flavor.
Feedback frequency may feel different Occasional feedback versus frequent feedback. Knowing you did a job well done can be intrinsically motivating. Consider using what Marshall Goldsmith would call Feedforward – Feedback for the future – and provide it often.
Work style preferences and etiquette Uninterrupted worktime versus more interruptions from technology – texting/IM/Slack to get a quick question answered while you are sitting in a meeting; working remotely and setting different work hours to accommodate home schedule.
Confidence vs arrogance Confidence versus arrogance. While some view confidence as a side effect of entitlement, consider it a level of confidence that other generations may not have had. *If it does come across as arrogance, look for an opportunity to share your perspective on what will help to be even more successful in the workplace with different layers of generations.
Career advancement You have to pay your dues before receiving a promotion versus expecting the career advancement after a certain period of time.
Methods of building relationships Getting straight to the point versus spending time on ‘chit chat’ in meetings to build relationships.

While these things may seem like a lot to overcome, there are things you can do to bridge the gap between generations.

To make a difference with ‘newer’ workplace generations – consider:

  • Show an interest in career progression
  • Provide observations on what they are doing well – not just weaknesses
  • Find out what they care about and ask them questions to learn from them
  • Don’t make assumptions that they have background and experience in every area of the position. Rather ask if there are any areas where you can provide some guidance or knowledge
  • Be careful of bias for a certain style/method of communication (e.g., clothing choices, hair color, ink, piercings; wanting to text or IM versus face to face)
  • Consider etiquette differences. Each generation raises their children a little different – creating conversational style differences and different situational awareness abilities
  • Explain the why as much as you can so that the bigger picture doesn’t get lost
  • With remote work expanding since Covid, traditional work hours have shifted, be flexible if it is possible for the position
  • Mindsets on working overtime while being a salaried employee has shifted – work life balance is more enforced and valued 

To make a difference with ‘older’ workplace generations – consider:

  • Giving feedback like “good job” is an intrinsic expectation for doing a day’s work
  • It was taboo to ask for a job promotion – promotions come from doing a great job and being recognized 
  • Talking about salaries was unheard of. Unless someone worked in a government position where there were posted salary ranges, it was never talked about
  • Expecting that everyone has gone to college is not a safe assumption – and can create discomfort in asking where they studied. It was common that children went straight from high school to the workplace or military to help the family financially
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for stories of changes they have seen in the workplace – you may find they have quite a range of observations and helpful perspectives
  • Longer tenures in a company are mutual – the thought of job hopping may seem very foreign

With any generation – when in doubt, ask. People generally love to be asked for their perspectives. When it’s possible to do this in a team setting, it allows safe conversation that opens team members to new perspectives and experiences, and it promotes new understanding. Take time to get to know all the people in your organization. They may not fit the ‘generational box’ you are putting them in – whether on purpose or subconsciously. Each individual brings unique ideas, styles, choices, and personalities to the table.  Embrace the beauty of the diversity that generations bring.

You don’t have to do it alone

If this seems overwhelming in any way to you, let’s talk. At Innovative Connections, we have a team of experienced consultants and executive coaches who are adept at navigating the rapidly changing organizational environment. We would love to be part of your journey as you encounter the successes and challenges that lie ahead. For a free consultation to talk about transforming your organizational culture, or how leadership development and professional coaching can help you or your organization, please contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

Our mission is to give voice and action to an emerging future. As a partner in your success, we would love to help you find your voice, see your vision, and imagine what the right action could be for you, your team, and your organization.

Additional Resources:

I follow Vanessa Van Edwards from the Science of People – she has wonderful articles on communication. An additional resource on this topic is in a video on her site – https://www.scienceofpeople.com/communication-generations/

For more reading – Generational Differences in the Workplace [Infographic] (purdueglobal.edu)

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