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Generations at Odds? Age Isn’t the Problem — This Is

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  • Leadership & Strategy

Generations at Odds? Age Isn’t the Problem — This Is

Generations at Odds? Age Isn't the Problem but This Is

If you have employees from 18 to 78, you might have generations at odds in the workplace.

You might also assume their differences in age is the problem.

But it’s not. Instead, something else is at odds. And once you address that, you can likely solve miscommunication, misconceptions and mistakes that hurt workplace morale, productivity and culture.

Why Are Generations at Odds?

So if it’s not the difference in age, what’s the problem? Differences in personality.

“There is a strong myth perpetuating within the workforce that there is a clash between older and younger generations,” says Ryne Sherman, Chief Science Officer at Hogan Assessments. “While there are unique experiences that influence and affect each generation, potential clashes between employees have less to do with a generation divide and instead are more likely to be affected by individual personality differences between workers.”

To put it simply, if personalities clash, people will too. It doesn’t matter if it’s two boomers at odds or one Generation Z (Gen Z) employee taking on a Generation X (Gen X) colleague.

Before we get into the research behind this, and solutions to issues, here’s the breakdown of the generations working full-time, based on Glassdoor research:

  • baby boomers (born 1946-1964): 17.3 million
  • Gen X (born 1965-1980): 42.8 million
  • millennials (born 1981-2000): 49.5 million, and
  • Gen Z (born 2001-2020): 17.1 million.

Now here are four factors behind so-called generational differences — and tips on how to avoid or overcome them.

1. Their Personalities Trump Age

We might assume that baby boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z differ because each generation entered the workforce under different conditions. But when it comes to workplace relations, “age effects trump generational effects every time as age plays a far larger role in shaping an individual’s personality.”

Bottom line: People of different generations are more alike than we might think.

“The personality data of a baby boomer and a Gen Z worker collected at the same age will show little to no difference because of generation,” says Sherman. “This is because personality factors tend to remain consistent across ages. For example, the priorities and desires of a 20-year-old will remain the same regardless of the decade they were that age.”

So, if you’re part of Gen X or a boomer, you might think Gen Z and millennials lack ambition. Guess what? The Greatest Generation and The Silent Generation thought the same of you when you were starting your career too!

On the flip side, those early career employees — who are often emotional, bold, daring risk-takers — sometimes see those further advanced in their career as conservative, meek and boring, which can lead to clashes among teams.

The fix: Help employees build bridges by getting them to share their best practices with each other. When employees learn hacks — and most importantly, why their colleagues do things that way — they’ll likely learn to appreciate differences.

2. They’re Motivated Differently

Because of the different positions each generation is in their career — and life — they’re almost always motivated by different things. So that can affect their work attitude and ethic.

Younger people might prioritize socializing, networking and collaborating with others, while older people prefer more solitary work and don’t feel a need to socialize. They also might differ on how they like to be recognized and rewarded. And they all likely have different ideas about proper compensation and benefits.

“While the generational differences outlined above are useful to consider when managing multi-generational teams, it is important to remember and respect each team member as an individual and to seek to understand their motivators at work,” says Sherman.

The fix: Like Sherman suggests, managers want to focus on individual preferences when it comes to rewarding, recognizing and compensating employees. If they take a one-size-fits-all approach, it will likely lead to discontent.

3. They Communicate Differently

There’s a serious communication gap: About 40% of employees over age 55 haven’t directly spoken to a Gen Z employee in the last year, according to a LinkedIn study. And 20% of Gen Zers haven’t spoken to someone over 50.

But this section on communication isn’t about how one generation might like text and social media and another might make phone calls. It’s about communication styles — which, much like personality styles — can rub people the wrong way.

Say, for instance, Jeremy only texts and uses lots of acronyms and emojis. Harold, who is more comfortable talking things through, feels slighted by Jeremy. Meanwhile, Jeremy is shy and often intimidated by Harold. Now, they both have the wrong impression based on different communication preferences.

“Leaders should foster open communication and a culture based on respect and empathy for others,” says Sherman. “Sometimes what might present as a generational difference could just be a difference in communication or work style. By better understanding the personality and values of others you will be able to work and communicate with others more effectively.”

The fix: Managers can set communication expectations — for instance, “We use email to communicate X. We use Slack to handle Y. We call colleagues when dealing with Z.” Or you can have employees share their preferences with each other. “This can reduce assumptions and increase cohesion,” says Sherman. 

4. They Interact Differently

If personalities affect how they work together more than the generation they’re in, the same goes for personality effects on interactions.

Personality drives each person’s desire to and degree in which they interact with others. For instance, we commonly believe introverts don’t want to interact and extroverts do. But we don’t tend to think Gen Z wants to interact and Gen X doesn’t.

It all goes back to personality.

“The greatest part of our personality comes from individual differences. Treating people as individuals rather than as members of a generation is the best approach in work and life. Finding a balance between these views and offering an environment that reaches a happy medium is the key,” says Sherman.

So you can’t — and don’t want to — force employees to interact with each other, regardless of generation. But you can give them opportunities. Sherman suggests these two:

  • Mentoring programs. You might pair a more senior team member with an entry level team member to help team members get to know each other on a personal level — and learn from each other. They might build a strong relationship which might not have happened organically.
  • Committees and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Create opportunities for connection through work and social committees and ERGs so they can join forces under shared interests or goals.

“Recognize that we are often a lot more similar than we are different,” says Sherman.

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