Communicating in a Multigenerational Workforce

The 21st century multigenerational workforce is both a blessing and a challenge for every organization. And it’s not going to go away. Almost 19 percent of people older than 65 are still working and nearly two-thirds of workers older than 65 hold full-time jobs that require at least 35 hours a week.*

People are postponing retirement for many reasons, but the result is some workplaces now have five generations represented on the payroll. The generations are roughly defined by birth years and cultural influences. You’ll find more than a handful of the Silent Generation at work in parishes and church organizations. They were influenced by the Great Depression and came of age during World War II. Although now at or past the retirement age, this generation is staying in the workforce longer.

Baby Boomers are those born between roughly 1946 and 1964. They may have been molded by the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, and the early days of the civil rights movement. They are generally characterized by optimism and a strong desire for personal fulfillment.

Generation Xers cover 1965-1984 – they grew up in the culture created by baby boomers. Their formative years were marked by government scandals, the rise of two-income families, and soaring divorce rates. They tend to be independent and resourceful.

Generation Y folks slip in from 1975 to 2005, and Millennials from 1982 to 2004, by most accounts. Their defining national experience is the events of September 11, 2001. As a group, they tend to be more globally-oriented and technologically savvy. Multi-tasking in life and work is the norm for this generation.

Each group brings valuable resources to the job, but the diversity of ages, styles and approaches can cause communication mishaps and nightmares. To foster intergenerational communication and maintain workplace harmony, it is important to understand how people of different ages approach their employment and what they expect to contribute to, and take from, the experience.

In general, workplaces are more casual than in the past, as demonstrated both by acceptable dress and modes of communication. Tensions arise when people try to communicate in ways that are not comfortable for their colleagues. For example, a quick, efficient email response to a formal letter might be frustrating to the person who values form, precision and a traditional letterhead.

It is useful for managers to set clear guidelines about internal and external communications. In addition, they can encourage all workers to individualize their approach by learning their coworkers’ communication preferences and trying to meet them in the middle. Common elements to establishing good communications are to treat each group with respect, recognize the dignity and strengths of each employee, and work to connect everyone in the organization. Managers set the tone for the operation by the way they choose to communicate with their people. Here are some tips to understand, value and manage the different generational groups:

Silent Generation folks have a respect for authority and tradition. They are highly dedicated and detailed workers who generally favor a top-down chain of command.

Boomers are comfortable with face-to-face communication. Many expect a little more formality in the workplace and feel strongly about the importance of policy, procedure, and chain of command. They value consensus through conversation. It’s good to engage baby boomers and their ideas, and to give them opportunities to mentor newcomers.

GenXers are perhaps more direct, independent, pragmatic and skeptical than others. They do well working in teams and respond to recognition for a job well done. Many are tech-savvy. It’s good to coach them in ways that prepare them for the next potential opportunity in your organization.

Millennials and Generation Yers are the fastest growing and most diverse population in the workforce. They may be the most communicative, although they favor text messaging, social media and instant messaging over more traditional forms, and largely eschew talking on the phone. This group is highly visual and not strictly linear in their problem-solving. It’s best to offer them opportunities to be autonomous and responsible for maximizing their strengths to get the job done. They respond to frequent feedback and individualized coaching and guidance.

Within the organization, there is a mutual responsibility to work on communication. No one group or individual can devise an ideal solution. One place to start is to understand the differences and demystify terms and technologies that are not universally understood. Employees can discuss values and share outlooks. Older workers may be proud of their work ethic, grateful to have meaningful employment, feel a long term responsibility to the employer, and be willing to work long hours to get the job completed.

Younger workers may be entrepreneurial and move from job to job. They may be drawn to your organization for its core beliefs, but they also want to align their lifestyles and sense of purpose with their jobs, and therefore may seek flexibility and deeper meaning.

Each group may be working hard, but they are likely working differently. Fostering an understanding and acceptance of these differences among your workforce is key.

For Further Reading

Leveraging the Value of an Age-Diverse Workforce – a study done by the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP

*Data from a study by the Pew Research Center, as reported in the New York Times, August 1, 2016

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