Whilst it is obvious that if you have people from all age groups in the workplace you will have benefits and challenges, it’s less obvious within most workplaces, how to harness these benefits and find solutions to the challenges.
The web is full of advice and research about how baby boomers can manage millennials. Typically these workers, born in the late 80’s and 90’s, are characterised in the workplace, according to the New York Times earlier this year, as having “a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.”
Yet there is little written about how millennials themselves can engage with baby boomers.
These are skills not often taught in college or university or in most graduate development programmes and often, interacting with this generation at work is still unfamiliar. So what can you do?
Use mouth and ears to the right proportions
The Greek philosopher Epictetus said “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This is invaluable advice. Listening to advice and wisdom of older workers is irreplaceable. They may have seen the issue you are facing many times before and even if they haven’t they could offer a different perspective.
Don’t be defensive
Seeking advice from an older worker is not an admission of failure or weakness. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are highlighting your inexperience; if anything it shows high self awareness and maturity. In addition, if you are seeking advice on solutions that work for all generations, this is likely to set you up for greater success.
Whether there is a formal mentoring programme in place or not, identifying someone who can guide you through your career is invaluable. Identifying someone of an older generation, even if they work at the same (or even lesser level) to you can give you insight and a different perspective.Not only can they help you with the technicalities of the job, what else they offer is much more important. From an organisational perspective they can help you to understand the company culture, the politics and the protocols. They also help guide your career and give you an independent soundboard. Unshackled by personal loyalty towards you, a mentor can ‘tell it like it is’ and give you the tough reality. At the same time they can support you and allow you to talk through thoughts, understanding and appreciating you in a way that, for example, close family members cannot.
Expand your horizons
It’s important that you don’t just stick to similar generational groups within the workplace. Make sure that you mix across generations. Existing in isolation could make it more difficult for you to progress your career. Remember those more senior to you are likely to be in the older generational bracket. Appreciating the value these people can bring to an organisation will bring many advantages.
Just because there is a widely held view that older generations don’t understand technology, don’t presume that those who are baby boomers are not tech savvy. Projecting a superior capability about your capabilities vs your older colleagues is unlikely to build bridges and may actually leave you looking rather silly as they demonstrate a far superior expertise. Similarly, never assume that they will think of you as unintelligent, spoilt, lazy or any other characteristic you may have read about millennials. Show them by your actions that you are professional and capable and they will respect you.
It’s a workplace for all
Above all it is about being considerate to fellow workers. Whether it be disagreements over the working hours, or business impact on the environment, it’s inevitable that you will need to compromise at times. Similarly it’s important to remember that things you take for granted may not work for everyone. Arranging a night out via a WhatsApp group is unlikely to be inclusive for someone who still has a paper diary and owns a Nokia 5210
Guide older generations
Workplaces have changed and so have standards. Working conditions and what is acceptable are different now to when baby boomers were entering the workforce. One example is sexist jokes. These were once common place, now they are unacceptable. This goes for all manner of things. Whilst you should not have to put up with poor behaviour, give the older generation a chance. If something is said or done that you do not agree with or offends you, respectfully take them to one side and explain why you are unhappy or uncomfortable. Chances are that they will respect you for it and even be mortified to have offended. They will be grateful you’ve had the maturity to deal with things this way. Obviously if things continue then you would need to involve other people, but in the vast majority of cases, this approach will improve understanding and strengthen working relationships.
Learn leadership from older generations
You will see many types of leadership during your career. Some of it will be good, some less so. You can learn from both. In fact poor leadership often shows you how not to do it more than positive leadership, which is often unnoticed, does. A survey from EY in 2013 shows that 70% of respondents said Generation X (those born in the mid 60’s to early 80’s) was the best equipped to manage teams, compared to 5% for millennials. The reason for this was that they were seen as having a positive and confident outlook, whilst at the same time being easy to work with. So learn from this generation.
Share a goal
Nothing can help moral and camaraderie as much as uniting for one cause. This may be around sales targets or other team performances, or it could be around improvements to services, the office environment or something similar. Once you have focused on an objective everyone feels they have a stake in, you can start to collaborate professionally to the benefit of the team, and where necessary mend any broken relationships.
Insurance company Aviva recently predicted that workers aged 50 and above would become the largest group in employment by 2024. It’s therefore important that the generations learn to work with each other better. This has predominately meant trying to educate baby boomers and generation X on the behaviour and attitude of generation y / millennials. However it is as important that the reverse is also addressed. And it is important for two simple reasons. Firstly, all the research suggests this will make for a better working environment and ensure individual career success. Secondly, generation Z (those typically born in the late 1990’s) are now entering the workforce. Not only will they be experiencing similar challenges, it’s fair to say that the millennials and the older generations need to be working harmoniously to be able to integrate this new cohort which comes with their own unique challenges, benefits, attitudes and approaches.