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Generation Gap: Improving Communication Between Older and Younger Generations in Business

If you’re like many business owners, your staff probably runs the gamut from Baby Boomers (born from 1946-1964), Gen X (born between 1965-1980) and Millennials (born from 1981-2000). You may even have a member of the “silent Generation” in his or her late 60s to early 70s.

Managing workers from three or four different generations can be difficult—and one of the biggest challenges is how different age groups use technology, especially when it comes to communication. If you’ve ever felt offended by a co-worker who carries on an entire conversation with you while staring at his smartphone and never once meeting your eye, you’re probably not a Millennial. If you don’t see the point of emailing a co-worker when you can text her 10 times faster, you probably are a Millennial.

It’s no surprise that Millennials are the generation most likely to have a positive view of technology. Nielsen reports more than 74% believe new technology makes their lives easier. No wonder 83% sleep with their smartphones, 51% use smartphones for work (compared to 31% of Gen X and 18% of Boomers) and 40% use social media in the bathroom!

Other generations bow down to Millennials’ tech knowhow. In a study conducted by EY last year, 78% of respondents called Millennials the most tech-savvy generation. But sometimes, Millennials’ comfort with technology can lead to resentment on the part of other workers.

Sure, Gen X workers value technology, too, but more as a tool that helps them get work done faster or find work-life balance, such as working from home or taking time off to attend a child’s sports events. Entering their peak earning years, their focus is on efficiency that gives them more time to manage their personal, work and family responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Boomers tend to view technology as something they have to learn—or be left behind. Never expecting work-life balance, Boomers grew up dedicated to their jobs, and as they work later into their lives, they’re determined to do what they must to keep them.

Just because Millennials grew up as tech natives, though, doesn’t mean they embrace it fully. In fact, in a survey by Cornerstone, Millennials are the generation most likely to say they sometimes suffer from work overload, from information overload and from technology overload. They want to turn off technology, but have a harder time doing so than other generations.

So is the Millennial tapping away on his smartphone during a meeting being openly rude, or researching information that might help move the discussion along? Is the Boomer showing up for the same meeting with nothing but a legal pad and pen ready to focus, or obstinately ignoring the tech tools that could help her work better and faster?

I’ve managed people for over 30 years (yes, I’m a Baby Boomer). The struggle to communicate in the workplace is nothing new, and I don’t believe technology is the cause—it’s merely a symptom. Older workers who’ve “paid their dues” have always grumbled about young upstarts; young workers have always groused that older workers don’t appreciate them and their new ideas.

In researching this article, I didn’t find a lot of hard data, but did uncover an awful lot of stereotypes, hardened into seeming reality by repetition on the Internet. And the generalizations are all garbage. Frankly, I know Boomers who are quite comfortable with tech (I personally use a desktop, 2 laptops, 2 tablets and 2 smartphones), Gen Xers who still use flip phones, and Millennials who text 200 words a minute but can’t remember to “save” a Word document.

One interesting fact I did find: In the Cornerstone study, a whopping 60% of Millennials say they prefer to collaborate in person, vs. 34% who prefer to do so online. In fact, all generations in this study shared a preference for face-to-face interaction as opposed to digital. Clearly, we all have something in common, no matter what age we are.

So how can you improve cross-generational communication in the workplace? My advice is to focus on the commonalities that bring generations together rather than the technology that divides them. Build teams that include all generations so they learn from one another. Enable multiple ways of communicating, from IM and texting for those who prefer it to email and, yes, in-person meetings. If younger employees suffer from a “right-now” mentality that’s at odds with your business culture, expecting immediate responses to texts or emails, set standards for response times. For example, let all employees know that they should respond within 24 hours, but also remind them that answering every email or text instantly can interrupt their work flow and hurt productivity in the long run. (Make sure crucial data, like company policy changes or important memos, is distributed via at least one method everyone uses, such as email, so no one misses out.)

Remind your younger employees that important or sensitive conversations are better held in person, not via text or even email. Tone and intention can easily be misinterpreted in digital communications, leading to major misunderstandings.

Have workers mentor each other—older employees could get younger ones up to speed on Excel, for example, while younger ones can show the veterans how to use Instagram for marketing.

You may have to “have the talk” with younger workers, explaining how important it is to look people in the eye, or show older ones their younger co-workers are actually taking notes or gathering information on their smartphones—not playing Words with Friends.

Most of all: Let go of stereotypes and encourage your workers to see—and treat each other as people. That’s the only way to truly communicate.

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky

Contributor at Fundera
Rieva Lesonsky is a small business contributor for Fundera and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company. She has spent 30+ years covering, consulting and speaking to small businesses owners and entrepreneurs.
Rieva Lesonsky