How to Sidestep the Generation Gap

January 29, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Those of you who attended our webinar yesterday (and thank you for attending!) heard Leigh Branham and I discussing some of the generational differences that we find in today’s workplace.  We only had a limited time for questions, and a lot of them were on those generational issues—so I thought I’d dig around a little and report back to you on the topic.

I read a book once called the Five Love Languages, which at first glance was a slightly sappy relationship self-help book… but in reality was a fabulous guide for interacting with humans. I’ve found it helps me nearly every day at home and at work. Really! The premise of the book is that we give the kind of love we want to get. Some communication types make sense to us, but others we don’t even register. Trouble is, we tend to give what we want to get–even if it isn’t what the recipient wants.

For example, Jen might value words of encouragement, and prefers a friend who holds back and lets her figure things out for herself. But Jim might believe words are cheap, and really only value a helping hand in a crisis. So if Jen gives Jim the kind of help she’d want, Jim is likely to think she’s unhelpful—or even kind of a jerk. Jen’s attempt to offer help would totally backfire.

The same is true at work. We communicate in the way we want to be communicated with. We collaborate in the way we want to be collaborated with. We recognize in the way we want to be recognized.

The trouble is, not all of us are speaking the same language, which means that what we intend to be a great pat on the back may be perceived uncomfortably or even hostilely. This especially seems to cut across generational lines.

Here’s a typical list of the differences experts cite among generations:

Traditionalists Baby Boomers Generation X Millennials/Gen Y
1900-1945 1946-1964 1965-1980 1981-2000
Values Driven,
Respond to authority,
Sacrifice for the greater good,
Command & control leadership style
Pro individualist,
Protest traditional authority,
Trust teams of peers for group decision-making,
Process oriented,
The “Me Generation”,
Make decisions and then verify with group,
Family first,
Globally aware,
Highly educated,  Accustomed to feedback,
Results oriented,
Skeptical or pessimistic
Dislike making decisions without group input, Diverse,
Environmentally aware,
“Wired” 24/7,
Need constant feedback,
Desire balance and growth


You might wonder, is there really such a thing as a these generational difference? I mean sure, people love to talk about Gen Xers and Millennials, but when you pull a dozen together, are these really characteristics they all have?  You could even equate this with zodiac astrology. How can we possibly paint an entire group of individuals with the same brush, simply because of when they were born? (I’m a textbook Virgo, by the way.)

I do think that this argument makes some sense. Individual differences will always exist. We stereotype at our peril.

At the same time, it’s hard to escape the reality that there have been monumental shifts over the past fifty years in how we communicate, work and relate to one another in the workplace. You don’t have to watch Madmen to recognize that things have changed radically since the Traditionalists hit the job market.

Deliotte has offered a terrific comparison of formative reality for the different generations (see pages 15/16).  But the differences are brought home most to me when I see lists of key events and societal trends that have molded each generation. Consider this:

Traditionalists Baby Boomers Generation X Millennials/Gen Y
Great Depression,
Pearl Harbor,
Korean War, 1950s prosperity,
McCarthyism/Red Scare,
Rise of Corporations,
Nuclear families, Madison avenue,
Space age,
Economic Boom of the 1950s,
Cold War & Cuban Missile Crisis,
JFK, RFK and MLK Assassinations,
Civil Rights, Vietnam,
Kent State,
Sexual revolution,
Radicals, Hippies and Yuppies
Latchkey kids,
Rust Belt,
Challenger Explosion,
Gas crisis,
Mobile phones,
Tiananman Square, bubble
Smart phones,
Facebook & Twitter,
Reality TV,
Iraq & Afghan wars,
Flash mobs,
Global warming,
American Idol, D.A.R.E. and the Great Smokeout,
Hurricanes Katrina & Sandy,
Gay marriage,
Columbine and Newtown shootings


Our formative years ARE a shared experience for generations. My mother, for example, is a Baby Boomer who tells shocking (but not uncommon) stories of her preschool days in the 50’s when she and her siblings ran wild across their neighborhood and town… (including swimming in a toxic waste dump behind their house). My grandmother went to a school where the teacher could, and did, rap students on the knuckles if they stepped out of line. I’m a Gen-Xer, and my school days were spent working at a desk which faced a teacher at a chalkboard, and often coming home after school to an empty house. I wouldn’t know what to do with the constant monitoring Millennials like my younger sister have had. Learning collaboratively at tables using digital media seems very odd to me, yet it is the world my daughter will learn in.

Yet these formative experiences of authority, learning and social interaction strongly impact how we work and learn, and they inform which “languages” we speak.

The more research I see, the more clear this becomes. For example, when surveying workers recently, Success Factors has found that Gen X workers were the most demanding age group:

  • 49% say Gen X candidates most likely to ask for higher job title
  • 44% say Gen X employees most likely to ask for a promotion
  • 40% say Millennial job candidates ask for training
  • Baby Boomers most likely to not ask for any additional benefits

Likewise, a study by Career Builder found that “younger generations are more likely to want to plan, rather than ‘dive right into’ a new initiative”:

(Only) fifty-two percent of those ages 25-34 said they “like to skip the process and dive right into executing” compared to 66 percent of those 55 and older. Instead, nearly half (48 percent) of the 25-34 group said they “like to write out a detailed game plan before acting” compared to approximately a third (35 percent) of those 55 and older.

We also find that generations also like to be recognized in different ways:

Traditionalists Baby Boomers Generation X Millennials/ Gen Y
Prefer formal recognition with plaques, certificates and ceremony. Prefer team –based appreciation. Value commendations, memorabilia and symbolic records of achievement. Don’t need constant feedback, but want their achievements recognized. Prefer public recognition and the attention of peers. Like material rewards that will convey the prestige of their accomplishment. Like to observe feedback to others to learn what is valued by the company. Enjoy material rewards as a manifestation of success—especially things they can share with their family. Need constant, real-time feedback and reinforcement. Prefer instant, social and public recognition in which they can participate. Prefer educational rewards like experiences, travel, outings, and opportunities for skill building.


So, if we agree there ARE differences among generations, the question becomes how to navigate those differences and provide a work environment and system of recognition and reward that is flexible enough to meet everyone’s needs. For better or worse, many of the systems that run today’s businesses—particularly in HR—were created (or modeled on those created) by the Traditional Generation. For example in recognition, these older systems tend to prioritize the more linear and formal types of recognition the older generation values—but as you can see, younger generations, who make up a majority of today’s workforce, prefer more public, social and collaborative types of recognition, and a broad selection of rewards.

So how can you sidestep the pitfalls of working with multiple generations?

SHRM Online has offered some tips from author Giselle Kovary, on getting the most out of each generation.

  • To get the most out of Baby Boomers, managers should express appreciation for their dedication, hard work and long hours.
  • For Generation X employees, managers should be clear about desired results and the rewards that will be provided for high performance.
  • Managers of Millennials should communicate the impact and contribution this cohort is making to the organization or team.

To that I would add this advice for HR and senior managers:

1. Speak a language that everyone can hear – Make sure that when you communicate with employees, you’re sending a message that will translate to each of these generations.

2. Offer flexible redundancy – Provide options, with multiple methods of communication that appeal to not only different generations but different personalities. For example, if you are offering training, give employees the option of a group class or a self-study. Or provide meeting agendas so that employees who wish to prepare on their own can do so.

3. Balance oversight –  Earlier  generations see too much hands-on management as micromanagement, and don’t like it. They prefer goals to manage to, while Millennials, monitored closely since childhood, are much more comfortable with “helicoptering”. Make sure you understand how you’re being perceived with each group.

4. Respect differences – Be cautious about pigeonholing one generation as “stuffy” and another as “selfish” or “needy”. Communication style and needs are simply constantly evolving and not good or bad. Encourage relationship building across your company–independent of hierarchy, role or department–to encourage great communication that transcends generations.

5. Combine strengths – Encourage interaction among these groups, while respecting employees’ personal boundaries. Getting the perspective of different generations on different areas of your business will benefit all. We have a lot to learn from one another. Companies that are made up of multiple generations can offer us more insight into our customers and ourselves.

6. Collaborate when building systems – All too often, systems and processes are designed by one generation, based only on the values they hold. What one group sees as an obvious solution to a problem may be seen as a disaster by another, and can cause serious fractures in the efficacy of the system. Make sure that you have input and buy in from all groups on new processes. (But don’t do it in a big long group meeting—Gen Xers hate that!)

7. Find commonality. This one comes directly from the great article by the folks at “Traditionals and Gen Y employees tend to value security and stability. Traditionals and boomers resist change. But both crave training and development. Gen X and Gen Y employees place a high value on workplace flexibility and work-life balance. Boomers and linksters (today’s school age kids) are most comfortable with diversity and alternative lifestyles. Gen Y and linksters are technologically adept and committed to socially responsible policies.”

Whether you believe we shake out along generational lines, or whether you think we divide in other ways (Virgos unite!) there is no doubt that today’s companies are made up of a variety of personality styles, all speaking different languages. Invest the time in learning how to bridge those gaps and be heard equally by all employees. Be sure that the systems you choose for your company are equally thoughtful.

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