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Navigating Generational Gaps in the Workplace

Have you ever made a reference at work and been met with total silence? It can really sting. Plus it’s awkward for everyone around you. But most of the time, you just shrug it off and carry on.

Yet after being on both sides of this equation a few times, I began to wonder why this kept happening. Of course, there could be a variety of explanations for the lack of laughs. But there was one pattern I couldn’t ignore: jokes consistently missed the mark on teams with employees who vary widely in age.

It made sense; we all have different backgrounds, upbringings, and understandings of the world. And that led me to take a step back and examine how we approach work at various stages of our lives and how our generational experiences inform our behavior.

So in this post, I’m going to cover a few generational differences I’ve observed, explain what to do when they pop up, and how acknowledging these differences can make for a more welcoming, productive workplace.

Generational differences and consequences to be aware of

In my experience, there are several generational differences that regularly show up at work. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Work and life priorities – Some generations were made to feel like their life should revolve around their work, and others see work as just one aspect of their life. This difference in prioritization can result in some employees resenting the fact that they have to be online even after they’ve finished their whole to-do list, reply to work emails at all hours of the day, or bring a completely different version of themselves to work.
  • Ability to say no – In general, Millennials and Gen Z don’t have as much work experience as their predecessors. So typically they haven’t had as much practice being honest in the workplace compared to older colleagues. They may also feel more pressure to agree with higher-ups in order to make a good impression. But as a result of saying yes so many times, they often end up with too much on their plate. Ultimately, this leads can to missed deadlines and shoddy work.
  • Professionalism – Team members establish rapport with their peers, clients, and direct reports in all types of ways. But the way that one generation forms and nurtures relationships can offend or patronize another generation. As a result, some team members may feel alienated or embarrassed, which, in turn, can cause unnecessary animosity within teams.

What to remember when these differences appear

While these differences aren’t going away anytime soon, there are a few things I suggest everyone keeps in mind throughout their workday to navigate the gaps and optimize their coworker relationships.  

  • It’s a two-way street – All employees need to be reminded to keep an open mind and be conscious of where generational gaps appear in the workforce. If they don’t understand something or want more context, tell them to simply ask. Giving everyone a little space, empathy, and patience goes a long way towards building healthy relationships regardless of age.
  • Setting expectations – Tension arises when people’s expectations aren’t met. But when you’re working with people of varying age groups, these expectations are rarely vocalized—they’re just assumed. And what is implicit for one generation isn’t for another. So being crystal clear on project requirements, level of commitment, and behavior is essential to getting everyone on the same page. This requires good listening skills and follow-through of all employees.
  • Make your unknowns known – Team members can’t be helpful if they don’t know what you’re struggling with. Fostering a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable asking for help is vital to cross-generational collaboration. Of course, that also means all of your employees一regardless of their age一need to be willing and able to jump in and assist their teammates.

Our differences make us stronger 

It’s important to recognize that there will always be generational gaps in the workforce; hiring new grads and promoting employees as they gain experience is inevitable. And although more conversations are finally being had in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and more, little attention is given to age discrepancies and how they affect our workplace.

In my opinion, the key to creating a harmonious work environment is to encourage communication and understanding. Listening to and considering new, diverse perspectives can drive innovation, increase mentorship, and leave bad, outdated practices behind. Everyone can teach each other something, and we need to be aware of and appreciate that gift.

Photo Credit: Canva

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