Nov/Dec
2016

Five Generations in the Workplace: Understanding Communication Styles

Written by Sarah Oslund
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Picture this: A young college graduate, the ink still drying on her diploma, assigned to work on a project alongside a 62-year-old seasoned employee. Sure, they may both be working for the same company, but you can bet their views of the world and the workplace couldn’t be more different. 

For the first time in history, we’re facing a time when employers could have employees from an unprecedented five different, very diverse generations working side-by-side in the office.

And while the generational boundaries for these groups—the Traditionalists (or the Silent Generation), the Baby Boomers, Generation X, the Millennials (or Generation Y) and Generation Z—are not exactly clearly defined, understanding the differences among them remains critical for employers and employees alike.

YOU NEVER WRITE, YOU NEVER CALL

Gail Sauter is the University of Minnesota-Rochester’s associate vice chancellor for finance and campus resources. Born into the Baby Boomer generation, Gail has been with the university for over 17 years and has seen firsthand the communication style changes that have taken place. “The change in preferred communication style has been most apparent to me,” Gail says. “I like to talk to people, especially when it’s addressing a difficult topic, but it seems like younger people in the workforce only want to communicate electronically.” Whether it’s by email or via text, “They definitely don’t want to talk face-to-face,” she observes. 

What Gail wants to be sure those younger generations understand is the challenge that communicating digitally presents. “It’s very difficult to get across the intention of your words in an electronic format,” she explains. “You can’t hear tone of voice or be sure whether someone is being serious
or light-hearted.” 

JUST TEXT ME

Like Gail, Joel Traver, coordinator for Winona State University-Rochester’s Teacher Preparation Collaborative graduate program, has recognized that his way of communicating doesn’t necessarily match that of his students. “While I let my students know I’d prefer to communicate via text or email so I can provide them with more timely responses, that isn’t necessarily how they want to engage with me,” he says. So Joel, whose classes consist primarily of adult learners, alters the way he communicates on a student-by-student basis. “In my experience, most people over 45 want to talk to me on the phone or face-to-face. If they are in that 30-45 age range, they want to email,” Joel says. “And the younger than 30-somethings? They want to text.” 

Mode of communication isn’t the only difference Joel has noticed. “My older students tend to make lists of their concerns, and we’ll talk them through over a 20- to 30-minute conversation,” he says, which explains why they might prefer to chat rather than email. But that’s not the case with his younger students. “They want a response right now on whatever topic they are dealing with,” he says, hence their preference for texting.

REMOVING THE STEREOTYPE

Just because research indicates that a generation might tend to act in a certain way doesn’t mean you can lump the entire age group into one box. Elizabeth Alness is a Millennial who will graduate from St. Cloud State this winter. Like other Millennials, she is direct and prefers if you are too. “I don’t want things sugar-coated. Tell me what you want me to accomplish,” she says. “There is so much color everywhere—I want things black and white.”

As a communications major, Elizabeth knows that delivering a message is about more than just being direct. “I actually enjoy emailing and phone calls,” she says. “I know the majority of my generation loves texting and group messages, but I think it’s easier to get my point across and not worry about something being misinterpreted when I’m having a one-to-one conversation with someone.”

Catherine Davis, RCTC business instructor and organizational development specialist, has spent years conducting trainings related to leadership management and team building. “When I first started doing research on this topic 15 years ago,” she says, “I heard people saying ‘I don’t get Gen Xers.’” 

Today, the addition of Millennials and Gen Z to the mix has heightened the conversation. “I hear older generations complain that Millennials don’t know how to communicate,” Catherine says, “that they don’t have any work ethic, and they don’t understand how the workplace works.” 

If, in fact, that is the case, who is to blame? Catherine recalls teaching a Principles of Management class about generations in the workplace. The class consisted of a broad range of ages, and when members of the class began talking negatively about the younger generations, a Millennial raised his hand. “He said, ‘It’s not our fault,’” Catherine recalls. “He said, ‘We didn’t ask to get trophies just for showing up. We didn’t ask for the constant praise. It’s not our fault.’ And he was right,” she says. “That is so true.”

That young Millennial isn’t the only person who feels being dubbed a “trophy generation” is unfair and inaccurate. “We didn’t see much recognition in school for just doing our work unless it was extraordinary,” Elizabeth says. “We were pushed a lot. I don’t think it’s easy for any generation growing up.”

PLAYING TO STRENGTHS

Our nation continues to work toward overcoming prejudice in the workplace, but age-related biases still play a major role in the business world today. Gen Z thinks Baby Boomers and Traditionalists are technology-challenged. Baby Boomers think Millennials are lazy. Millennials think Gen Z is too entitled. The list goes on, and generalizations like these can prevent the culture within a company from operating at optimal capacity. 

Jennelle Stemper is the owner of Mainstream Boutique, a women's clothing retailer in Rochester whose mission is “to empower, strengthen, and celebrate the women in our world through fashion.” Jennelle has employees from all five generations working in her store, but in order for them to be successful in that environment, she has to look beyond their ages. “You need to work to people’s strengths in a small business,” she explains. Her younger employees are really tech-savvy, so she puts them to work taking pictures and posting new outfits-of-the-day on social media. “My older employees are great at connecting with the customers and developing relationships.” For Mainstream to thrive, this balanced set of employee skills is vital. 

CONNECT, DON’T DIVIDE

With so much diversity in the future of our workforce, we have an unprecedented opportunity to  nurture the development of all employees, regardless of age. Business owners and supervisors can work toward inclusivity in the workplace: 

Regardless of age or generation, most employees simply want to work in an environment that nurtures their strengths and allows them space to learn and grow. “One of the most rewarding things about owning the boutique is watching women come together to build each other up,” Jennelle reflects. “It doesn’t matter how old we are. We can always encourage and support one another.” 

Sarah Oslund is a freelance writer and owner of Inspire Writing & Consulting, inspiremn.net