Workplace Communication Issues Across Multiple Generations
By Sue Aiken
Generational theory defines a generation for our purposes as a set number of years when those born during that time are influenced by the world events, Think of a generation like an iceberg traveling slowly through its space pulling from the surroundings branches, dirt, rocks, etc. Each generation is much like the iceberg. It keeps moving along, bringing its growing identity with it, influencing itself and those it pass along the way.
The Leaders in this Arena
In terms of authoring four books and facilitating conversation in their work and online, the leaders are authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. Their first book, published in 1991, Generations; The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, opened up a whole way to view both history and the future for me during the 1990’s. In simplified terms, they say a generation is a group of people moving through time together; each generation possessing a distinctive sense of self. Or as they call it "age location."
It is your right and certainly that of your clients to, at first glance, dispel their descriptions of each generation as stereotypical thinking. I wondered about different cultures and/or racial groups fitting into this thinking. Interestingly, the authors found characteristics that recycle over and over again predictably through time. In addition they discuss the identification in each generation of the "peer personality" which they define as:
“…..a generational persona recognized and determined by (1) common age location, (2) common beliefs and behavior, and (3) perceived membership in a common generation.” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p 64, 1st.ed.)
What This Means to Career Counselors
Some of the basic generational terms might be useful when working with clients on communication issues, and employer/employee conflicts where age might make a difference in needs, perceptions, expectations and style of communication. Some situations are funny and positive but many create serious stress both for the individuals and for the workplace itself. It may have serious consequences on their own career decision-making, setting and achieving workplace goals, motivation and maintenance of the workplace to name a few.
I encourage us as career professionals to read the growing amount of literature and websites devoted to generational differences. Google this topic and you will find much to draw from. A search of Career Convergence results in numerous articles that focus on generations, such as:
- Helping Millennials Discover Life Purpose: A Narrative Approach - By Danielle Menditch
- Autumn Harvest: Helping Clients Cultivate Meaningful Careers at Midlife and Beyond - By Maggie McCormick
- The Landscape of the 21st Century Workplace: Emerging Trends You Need To Know as a Career Development Professional - By Caitlin Williams
- New @ Work: Three Tips to Help Gen Ys Adapt - By Alicia Blain
Who Are We?
Today’s workplace includes at least three generations: Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y or Millennials. But being a part of the older and wiser (!) Traditionalist/ Silent Generation, I feel compelled to point out that this generation is still present in the workplace, although fading. Certainly we are in the field of career counseling; for example, 81-year-old Richard Knowdell delivered the keynote address entitled The Changing Dynamics of Career Counseling at the 2015 Northern California Regional Conference of California Career Development Association, then he was honored for his Lifetime Achievements. More Traditionalist can be found working as faculty, CEOs, investors, consultants, lawyers and in the board room. We own our homes, lived economically, have invested and accumulated wealth. We were influenced by World War II and the Cold War, saw a lucrative post-war boom, are well educated and traveled, believe in structure, process, success and opportunity. All generalizations have their own strengths, of course, but Traditionalist may still be influencing the workplace traditions, values and structures.
Here are some facts about the five generations living today:
- Traditionalist - Born 1925 to 1945 - Ages 97 to 70 as of 2015
- Baby Boomers - Born 1946 to 1964 - Ages 69 to 51 as of 2015
- Gen X Born - 1965 to 1980 - Ages 50 to 35 as of 2015
- Gen Y/Millennial - Born 1981 and after - Ages 34 to 16 as of 2015
- Gen Z/Nexters - Born after 2000 - Ages 15 and younger.
Here are four different responses regarding motivators and career planning (United Nations, n.d.):
- Traditionalist – Self-worth; “I'm happy to be where I am”
- Baby Boomers – Salary; “My dedication and service have to be rewarded”
- Generation X - Security; “It is about time to promote me!”
- Generation Y – Maintain personal life; “What do you mean I cannot be promoted yet? I have delivered the results I was asked to deliver!”
Action Items For Career Professionals
1. Know and understand your own generation when it comes to preferences in the workplace, how you like to make career decisions, preferred communication with management and those you hire. What is your personal view regarding generational communication gaps? Do you feel more aligned with one other generation over others? How does that impact your relationship with clients?
2. Learn all you can about other generations represented among your
clients or employees. Are there generations you are uncomfortable working with in terms of understanding them? Be honest here. For example, after hearing a panel of Millennials speak about their view of the workplace, as a Traditionalist I might have difficulty being non-judgmental. Could I be open and impartial with them? I would not consider myself to be a good choice for them as a their career counselor. On the other hand, I found them to be upbeat, high energy and creative! All excellent qualities needed in the workplace. The panel members all worked in Silicon Valley where their sense of entrepreneurism is acceptable and necessary. What about elsewhere in more structured work environments? How can we be useful to them?
3. Ask your clients a set of questions to learn more about what their needs are, why they have come to see you and what their expectations are of you. Ask how much time they wish to devote to career planning.
Conclusions Regarding Generational Theory
There is much written and discussed about generational characteristics like those above. Of course, there will not be agreement on any list as long as we remain individuals influenced by incredibly diverse events, cultures and people.
In closing, there are many aspects of generational theory that may lead career professionals to reflect on communication gaps in the workplace. Questions like:
- Where does the client wish or expect to “work”? At home, in the office, flexible locations? Other?
- Do they perceive any issues of communication with fellow workers?
- Do they value the trust and input of fellow workers or do they see themselves working independent of others?
Back to the iceberg metaphor: enrich your practice with heightened awareness of generational differences and similarities and consider how that might impact how you choose to interface with each group. Will it more fully enhance your work and the career planning you introduce to clients?
Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. Quill Publishers.
United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund. (n.d.). Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (and Generation Z) Working Together. Retrieved from www.un.org
Sue Aiken, MA, NCC, MCC is Associate Editor of the Independent Practice department for the NCDA Career Convergence web magazine. Her work over the years has involved growing a private practice, leading workshops for non profit career resource centers, chairing the graduate Career Development program in the School of Management of John F. Kennedy University and serving as a contractual career coach with Career Development Alliance. firstname.lastname@example.org