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Intergenerational Woes


by Jim Gray

Canada, we have a problem.

As four generations work side by side in offices, institutions and factories across the country, they’re too often failing to communicate in a way other age groups understand, respect – and respond to.

From the clueless 24-year-old who shouts “Yo, dog!” to his much older boss in the hall, to those self-obsessed Boomers who discount anyone who arrived on the scene after 1990, today’s workplace seems to breed age-related conflict.

It’s more than a perception.

According to the research, at least one-third of employees report being frequently offended by someone from another generation at work. And the communication breakdown doesn’t end there. A significant percentage of each generation believes their age group isn’t viewed positively by other generations.

It’s enough to make you demand to see someone’s birth certificate before introducing yourself. (That’s probably a non-starter.)

Understanding is the first step to effective communication – in any interaction, but especially between age groups. By learning about the characteristics and preferences of each generation, we can better connect with its members.

Just as importantly, we can learn from each other. We can take the best attributes of each generation and employ them to strengthen our own communication abilities.

So, let’s get started.

Here’s an overview of the four generations in today’s workplace – what they value, how they communicate, and how to engage them.

Traditionalists (Ages 65 to 88)

Born between 1922 and 1945, Traditionalists comprise a mere four per cent of the Canadian workforce, virtually all of it in the private sector. (Most public service employees have long retired by the time they reach this age group.)

Traditionalists vote and volunteer more actively than younger generations. They believe in the system.

They value formality, logic and appropriateness in the communication they deliver and receive. If you want to connect with the influential Traditionalist still working in your organization, approach the interaction more formally. Your colleague will appreciate it, even if he tells you just to call him “Tom.”

Traditionalists want their experience and accomplishments to matter, to have counted for something. In today’s hyperactive workplace, their contributions are too often ignored or diminished. We have short memories.

A handwritten note on high-end stationery resonates with every generation, but particularly with Traditionalists. They greatly value such personal touches. However, don’t undermine your outreach with spelling or grammatical errors. Traditionalists revere clean, sharp, correct communication.

Boomers (Ages 46 to 64)

Boomers may be retiring by the thousands, but they still comprise the largest segment of the Canadian workforce – 38 per cent.

In fact, it may seem to younger generations that Boomers will be around forever. Indeed, in 2020, 10 years from now, Boomers will still comprise a solid 22 per cent of the work force.

Think about it. The youngest Boomers are still only in their mid-forties.

With Canadians living longer, combined with a coming talent shortage, it’s safe to assume that some Boomers will be haunting the workplace a quarter century from now.

As a Boomer, I apologize.

How do you communicate most effectively with the members of this still-dominant generation? By making it about them. Boomers were raised in expansionary, optimistic times when all things seemed possible. They think of themselves as “stars” – and in this respect, they’re closely aligned with the much-maligned Y Generation.

Because most Boomers came from larger families, with stay-at-home Moms and loads of other kids around, they wanted to stand out and be recognized. Many still do.

That’s your key. Tell your Boomers how they can excel as part of your initiative. Then make a personal appeal for their support – don’t, if possible, simply order it.

Generation X (Ages 31 to 45)

Raised in the shadow of the Boomers, Xers can be resentful of the enormous influence still wielded by the navel-gazing generation that came before.

Straight to the point, Xers can be cynical and distrustful of those in authority unless their supervisors have proven themselves to be efficient, competent and reliable.

Influenced by burgeoning technology and an increasing divorce rate, Xers for the most part don’t live to work. They introduced the notion of work-life balance. They also introduced extreme sports.

Xers like their information straight between the eyes, minus the schmooze-happy lingo so often favoured by Boomers. To connect with a member o Generation X, cut to the chase and use direct, fact-based, results-oriented language.

Generation Y (Ages 10 to 30)

The members of Generation Y, or the Millennials, already comprise more than a third of Canada’s work force. In 10 years, they’ll comprise half of it.

Often called the “Entitled” generation, the Ys were raised by Baby Boomer parents who told them they everything they did was absolutely fabulous. The workplace hasn’t been as complimentary.

There’s a theory that because they were grew up in a world of virtual communication, Ys aren’t as skilled at reading the sophisticated visual and verbal clues that constitute complex face-to-face and voice-to-voice interactions.

Whatever the case, they’re still learning organizational behaviour. They need to be cut some slack. Ys require more supervision, mentoring and feedback than Xers, and when that’s in place the results can be remarkable.

Brilliant with technology and driven to succeed, Ys need to be told – and often shown – why what they’re doing matters. In this way and many others, they’re much like their Boomer parents.

In fact, all the generations are more alike than they are different. We value the same things – our country, our freedom, our family and our friends. We all want love, and to be respected. We want to find meaning and achievement in our work.

Really, the only difference is how we express those sentiments. Better communication between the generations can start by simply recognizing that fact


Jim Gray

An accomplished speaker, writer, and media and presentation skills coach, Jim Gray works with clients throughout North America — always with a single goal in mind. It’s to help each individual communicate with clarity and power, like a leader. Gray has been counseling clients on their communication initiatives for more than 20 years. Jim is the Principal of Media Strategy Inc., a boutique public relations firm.


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