Bridging the generation gap in the workplace

Managing an organisation is complex enough without worrying about negotiating generational differences, but that’s exactly what is becoming more and more critical in the modern workplace. Organisations have always been home to a staff complement spanning the generations – from school leavers to employees just about to retire. Why is this topic suddenly gaining exposure in prestigious titles such as the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and the Huffington Post?

Before we try to answer that, let’s take a look at the terms.

Who’s who?

According to the Wall Street Journal, Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are competitive and think workers should pay their dues. They are likely to put in long hours and see time at one’s desk as an indicator of working hard. Generation X refers to those born between 1965 and 1977, who are more likely to be skeptical and independent-minded (or, less generously, only out for themselves). Members of Generation Y were born in 1978 or later. Known as Millennials, they like teamwork, feedback and technology. Harvard Business Review goes further and says that organisations may have as many as five generations working together, and adds to the above list the Traditionalist (born prior to 1946), who refuses to retire, and the Generation 2020er — born after 1997 — who appears surgically attached to a cell phone. The last is only just beginning to enter the workforce, but if you have a graduate programme or offer internships you may well encounter Gen 2020ers and they may share the canteen with Traditionalists old enough to be their grandparents…or even great-grandparents!

Why does it matter – now?

As we’ve said, there have always been multiple generations at work in any given professional, industrial, or retail environment. Why the fuss now? Aren’t we just making a mountain out of an insignificant molehill in the interests of management science? We don’t think so. The difference is technology, and the way it has rewired our brains. Millennials and the emerging Gen 2020 have grown up with technology in a way that no other generation has. All the rest of us (giving away the age of this author!) have adopted technology later in life and adapted our behaviour to accommodate its impact on our professional and personal lives. Technology changes the way we work, but for young people it is not a change; it is all they’ve ever known. And technology leads to disruptive thinking. Millennials don’t want to fit in; they want to change things.


The ‘younger generation’ has always wanted to change the world, and there has always been a generation gap between young adults and their more staid elders. Anyone old enough to remember ‘flower power’ and the ‘summer of love’ knows that recent history has in fact witnessed some significant disparities between one generation and the next. The difference is this: in the past the generation gap described the chasm between adults and teens or university students. Once those students graduated and entered the workplace the gap narrowed and eventually disappeared as they conformed to societal and cultural expectations of workers. Today’s Millennials are creating a new norm which future generations may well adopt but which does not conform to the current status quo. Millennials are all about engagement, as the recent Deloitte Human Capital Report showed. They want to be consulted and feel they contribute to an organisation’s success. They want to work for companies that take their social responsibility seriously. They want regular feedback on their performance, and they want to leverage technology for training, including peer-to-peer learning and content generation. Conventional hierarchical structures are likely to be unpopular with Millennials (and therefore also with Gen 2020ers).

How can you cope?

The Wall Street Journal offers some tips. We’ve digested them to give you the following advice:

  1. Train your managers. They need to be able to recognise generational differences, but also to spot the difference between a generational trait and an individual personality trait. It’s too easy to stereotype (and dismiss) someone when their behaviour may be nothing to do with their age and more related to their own character.
  2. Encourage cross-generational learning. Ensure teams are made up of multiple age groups and make it easy for them to learn from one another. This learning must be two-way. Younger employees need the experience and expertise of their elders; older workers need to be open to fresh ideas and approaches.
  3. Consider introducing modern work options like telecommuting and remote working. This will resonate immediately with Millennials but you may find your independent-minded Gen Xers also appreciate the flexibility (they may be at a life stage where they are juggling caring for children and ageing parents). Show that you value results over ‘presenteeism’ and everyone will feel more empowered. Flexible work options may also allow Baby Boomers approaching retirement age to downshift without completely exiting the economy.
  4. Accept that people learn differently, and this is especially true across the generations. Baby Boomers may respond to PowerPoint whereas younger employees may reject it in favour of more interactive, technology-based learning.
  5. Engage everyone. This is not easy. Internal communications and HR have an important job to do. Make sure all staff enjoy regular educational and training opportunities. Keep impatient Millennials occupied and motivated with special assignments outside of their normal job remit.
  6. Look at the geography of the office. If you’re a Baby Boomer you may like shutting the door to your own space and working in silent privacy, but Millennials prefer an open office environment that encourages information-sharing and collaboration.
  7. Cut down on meetings. Millennials and Gen Xers dislike formal meetings with no tangible agenda (e.g. the weekly team meeting). Keep meetings essential, relevant, and brief.
  8. Listen to ALL employees, not just the senior ones. Everyone should feel their ideas, concerns and complaints are heard, however junior the role. Millennials in particular thrive on feedback but everyone wants to know their voice counts.
  9. Consider multiple communication channels, so that everyone receives information in a way they can relate to. Boomers often want personal contact, either by phone or in person, and see email as distant and formal. Millennials and Gen 2020ers have grown up with emailing and messaging so are more comfortable with these vehicles and don’t find them impersonal. Gen Xers are somewhere in between, depending on how readily they have embraced technology and whether or not they have teenagers at home!

Don’t despair!

It’s important to be aware of generational differences but don’t dwell on them. Try not to see every issue that arises as a generational conflict (though sometimes it may be). It’s more important to be aware of your employees’ demographics and needs overall, and this can be achieved through regular employee engagement surveys (see our recent article on this topic). Experiment with mixed-age teams and be willing to change things around if a particular combination is not working.

Highveld Professional Council

Finally, you may want to consider using the services of a retired professional on a consultancy or project basis, or offering your services if you are an executive recently retired or coming up for retirement. The Highveld Professional Council is a select body of mature executives giving industry the benefit of their years of experience and expertise on a flexible basis – whether for full-time, on-site consultancy for the duration of a project or periodic support to keep projects on track. These professionals are a valuable source of mentoring for younger workers and can help you to manage some of your cross-generational challenges. Contact us on 012 367 5600 or if you’d like to know more about the Professional Council or click here for more information.

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