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Bridging the tech gap between different generations

Is generational profiling accurate?

Generational profiling is a reality today. You’ve probably heard a lot about generational differences in work ethic and tech aptitudes. It’s good to be skeptical about such demographic generalizations because they can result in inaccurate, unfair stereotypes. Employees deserve to be understood, appreciated and respected for who they are individually. –Nonetheless, generational profiling is a useful tool in explaining how historical events, changing technologies, and economic conditions have shaped different age groups.

generational differences in work ethic and technology aptitude

In this segment, I’ll provide an overview of generational profiles. Sources vary a bit in the scope of years defining each of the following groups, especially for Millennials.

Traditionalists

Born between 1929 and 1945–72 to 88 years old

Though 95% of this generation, aka ‘The Silent Generation,’ is retired, some still prefer or need to work. They are generally ‘tech challenged,’ but careful planners who respect authority and are diligent about completing tasks. Though they grew up in the era of radio and analog machines, they have a lot to offer—with impressive ‘crystallized intelligence,’ aka wisdom, that can take a lifetime to develop.

Baby Boomer

Born between 1946 and 1964–53 to 71 years of age

Boomers are work-centric and competitive. They respond to authority but demand respect, a partial carryover from the Counterculture Revolution of the 1960s. Like Traditionalists, they prefer ‘face time’ and telephone communication. They grew up watching TV during a more optimistic period of U.S. history, though their ‘sky is the limit’ view of life has been tempered over the years.

Generation X

Born between 1965 and 1976–41 to 52 years of age

This was the generation that experienced the advent of digital technology. GenXers are comparatively pessimistic and skeptical, given the Vietnam War, Watergate and the malaise of the 1970s. They are loyal employees who exhibit strong leadership capabilities—their commitment to work driven by a need for two incomes to compensate for a slower-growth economy and a higher level of spending on technology.

They are well-educated and prefer to work for companies that support life-long learning. Gen-Xers aren’t likely to challenge management, preferring to move on to new opportunities when unhappy with their work environment.

Millennials

Born between 1977 and 1995—20 to 37 years of age

This age demographic is the fastest growing of all, emerging as the majority of workers last year. More than any other group, they have upended traditional work models. They grew up as digital tech became integral to everyday life, the rise and fall of dot-com startups, as well as significantly greater diversity. On the downside, they also were affected by downsizing, terrorism, and the Great Recession.

Millennials are tech savvy, creative and collaborative, but not as inclined as previous generations to be interested in climbing the corporate ladder. Instead, they pursue ‘life enrichment,’ characterized by wide-ranging professional and personal experiences, preferring to work for companies that promote work-life balance. They are the most likely age group to openly question management.

On the one hand, Millennials are idealistic, wanting to make a difference. At the same time, they are pragmatic, their aspirations tempered by the post-2008 job market implosion. This, of course, has resulted in many of them postponing professional development and marriage.

Next, I’ll focus on strategies for bridging the tech and communication gap between the different generations in the workplace.

Creating a cross-generational, collaborative work culture

This far, I made the case that generational profiling (as opposed to generational stereotyping) can help create better understanding and greater respect towards people of different ages in the work environment. ‘Appreciation of diversity’ is much more than a politically correct buzz phrase. Research demonstrates that digital work teams are more productive and generate better decisions when comprised of people of different ethnic, gender and age backgrounds. One cautionary example–when a work culture is dominated by one age demographic, e.g., as in most C-level IT corporations where young to middle age white men are in charge, a ‘groupthink’ mindset emerges that can undermine the scope and quality of decisions.

Technology often triggers intergenerational conflict

Millennials grew up relying on their devices to connect with others. So, during meetings younger workers often have their heads down, looking at their smartphones, perhaps to research issues being raised by others. This should come as no surprise. According to one recent survey, “74 percent of millennials believe new technology makes their lives easier, compared to 31 percent of Generation X and just 18 percent of Baby Boomers.” Boomers and GenXers value eye-to-eye contact and may understandably view this behavior as rude disinterest. Another technology-based difference—boomers prefer to use email, while millennials prefer instant messaging.

It’s understandable that boomers might be tired of the constant onslaught of new technology, though millennials tend to see this as inflexibility. Opening channels of communication about this and related issues can build empathy and tolerance.

cross generational team of employees

Strategies for improving cross-generational collaboration
  • Train your employees on the benefits of age diversity – Provide training that focuses on the talents and varied enriching experiences different generations bring to the table.
  • Take advantage of the talents and strengths of each generation – Each generation has defining strengths and abilities. An organization benefits when the contributions of employees of all ages are acknowledged. Leaders need to allow workers to work in the style that is most effective and comfortable for them, regardless of their personal work habits. This communicates flexibility, something employees appreciate.
  • Encourage mentorship – Young employees are looking for guidance from leaders and senior employees. Mentoring younger employees encourages their professional development while facilitating the vital transfer of knowledge from one generation to another. At the same time, tech-savvy millennials can flip the mentorship dynamic by helping older workers learn tech skills.
  • Facilitate cross-generational integration – Millennials often hold entry level positions, whereas boomers and GenXers hold higher level positions. This creates a power differential that can be intimidating for younger employees. To remove structural and other barriers between these groups, encourage ‘blended teams.’ This shouldn’t be limited to startup organizations with flatter hierarchies. –Another simple strategy is to assign older and younger workers contiguous workspaces—for example, having an older employee next to interns. OWDT’s dedicated web design team is a prime example of how to build a cross generational team.

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