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The Generation Gap | Why Baby Boomers And Gen Z Aren't Talking At Work

Today's workforce features one of the most diverse age ranges we've ever seen. With five generations currently working on teams together, organisations around the world are finding rifts forming in their teams as generations clash over differing views, unique communication styles, and alternative ways of working.

A recent Australian Financial Review article highlighted the culture clash plaguing intergenerational teams today as Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Generation Z (born 1995-2010) reportedly 'stop communicating' in the workforce. The article references the fear that Baby Boomers and Gen X experience as they navigate 'cancel culture' in today's public sphere. On the flip side, it unpacks Gen Z's willingness to call out toxic work environments, whilst also critiquing their lack of work ethic after a TikTok of a Gen Z went viral last month as they filmed a video of themselves crying about how hard it was working a 9-5. After weighing up the pros and cons of each generation, the article concluded that in many cases, younger and older generations have decided it is easier to not communicate at work than to navigate the cultural chasms between them.

After reading this article, watching the very well-timed 2024 Australian Lamb advertisement entitled The Generation Gap, I wanted to share some thoughts as a Generational Consultant who spends a large portion of time working with organisations around the world to bridge this divide.


Does The Generation Gap Exist?

Absolutely. I find myself speaking to senior managers from organisations big and small as they complain about the tech-obsessed, unmotivated, demanding young professionals on their teams that, despite their best efforts, these senior managers just don't understand. On the flip side, I also find myself in rooms with high-performing young professionals who have resigned from high-paying roles due to toxic working cultures and 'outdated' management styles.


Whether you're listening to the media, floating the concept at the dinner table, or talking to a manager of an intergenerational team, I can guarantee that the terms 'kids these days' and 'okay boomer' are being lobbed back and forth between the generations like grenades.


Research can also corroborate this anecdotal evidence with a study conducted by Real Research showing that 62% of respondents believe that generational differences play a significant role in creating conflicts in the workplace. In addition to this, the same study reported that 31% said they have experienced workplace conflicts due to the generational gap.



What Are The Benefits Of Having An Intergenerational Team?

Thanks to modern medicine, adults are staying healthier for longer, which also means they are working for longer with the age of retirement continuing to increase. In addition to this, we're seeing more young people bypassing university and traditional study pathways to go straight into industry. These two factors when combined means that the generation gap is only set to grow into the future. With some experts acknowledging that the first language our newest generation, Gen Alpha, learn to communicate with is technology as opposed to any spoken language, the gap is becoming more visible now than ever before.


Whilst an intergenerational team can bring many headaches to managers, when managed correctly, these diverse teams can bring new ways of thinking, fresh ideas, and dynamic collaborations to any team.


A Gartner study found that a highly inclusive environment can improve team performance by up to 30%. In addition to this, a study by McKinsey & Company highlighted that companies with the most diversity outperform those with the least by 36% in profitability.


As well as studies highlighting the increase in business performance, over recent years, we're seeing an increased focus on multigenerational workforces from corporate leaders around the world with a Deloitte study on Global Human Capital Trends finding that corporate leadership ascribed a high level of importance to multigenerational workforces. In addition to this, The Living, Learning, and Earning Longer Collaborative Initiative survey found more than 80% of corporate leaders said multigenerational workforces are key to growth.


It is clear that diverse teams are key to business success, but if they have so much potential, why are they causing so many headaches?



What Are The Pain Points For Intergenerational Teams?

Along with any type of diverse team, teams with great diversity in age possess an awesome amount of potential, however, also bring with them several potential friction points. To effectively manage an intergenerational team, managers need to first be aware of where the conflict can often arise from. This includes:


Communication Styles

The rapid advancement of technology over the past 60 years has meant that each generation has been raised with an entirely different set of communication tools available to them. Born between the 40's-60's, Baby Boomers tend to prefer direct face-to-face communication often opting for phone calls and meetings. On the other hand, Generation Z, also known as the 'Digital Natives' have grown up in a world surrounded by touchscreen devices and wifi connectivity, often preferring instant messaging and video calls. This article from Powell does an excellent job of outlining each generation's preferred communication style.

Differing Career Values

Another point of contention comes from the fact that each generation approaches their career in very different ways, and as such, often struggle to understand each other's working styles. Baby Boomers are known to be hardworking individuals with a traditional mindset, meaning they often value hierarchy, authority, and tend to take a more formal approach to their jobs. This is in sharp contrast to Generation Z who prefer flexible work environments, authenticity, flexible working hours, and workplaces that value diversity and social responsibility. Make sure to check out this Indeed article that sheds more light on how each generation approaches their career.


What They Look for In An Employer

As well as differing communication styles and values, the different generations look for different things from an employer when on the job hunt. In addition to this, when they secure a job, each generation expects different things from their managers. A 2022 EY US Generation Survey found that Baby Boomers are not overly interested in their company’s culture, with less than 30% of respondents saying that company culture had an impact on their remaining at their current organisation. On the other side of the spectrum, 40% of Gen Z and Millennials highlighted that culture plays a big part in their desire to stay with their employer.


Whilst there are many other differences between the generations, these are some of the main differences that have the potential to cause friction in a workplace. An effective intergenerational manager should always be aware of these friction points and take a proactive approach to foster dynamic collaborations within their teams.


How Can Managers Foster Dynamic Intergenerational Collaborations On Their Teams?

Managers of intergenerational teams should always take a proactive approach to fostering dynamic collaboration opportunities in order to avoid conflict and build a culture of mutual trust and respect. There are a number of simple initiatives you can implement to foster this dynamic culture. These include:


Reverse Mentoring

The Estée Lauder Reverse Mentoring Program is arguably one of the most successful intergenerational collaboration initiatives around the world today. Launched by the company's CEO, Fabrizio Freda, in 2015, the program sees junior staff paired with senior leaders for monthly mentoring meetings. In each mentoring meeting both the junior and senior team members are challenged to come prepared with one thing they would like to teach, and one thing they would like to learn. The program has seen brilliant outcomes for the organisation, including increased employee retention, a breakdown of internal silos, an increase in diversity and inclusion, a sharing of digital skills, and an overall shift in company culture.


Playing To Our Generational Strengths

Whilst each generation has grown up with very different communication styles, technologies, and values, we can play into these differences as strengths on our teams. For example, we find that older generations offer an immense amount of value in their industry knowledge and experience, while younger generations bring new ideas and innovation to the table. Baby boomers often excel in skills such as negotiation or public speaking, with decades of life experience to support them. However, Gen Z tends to be more skilled in thinking outside the box, pivoting, and working with new and emerging technologies. When each generation is made aware of their superpowers, and the superpowers of others on their team, some truly dynamic synergies can occur. This BetterUp article does a great job of highlighting the superpowers of our different generations.


Open Discussions With Mutual Respect

The basis of any intergenerational collaboration is the understanding that any differing opinions can be shared in a sphere of mutual trust and respect. This is foundational to fostering collaboration between different generations and is a key piece of the puzzle that needs to be constantly worked on to develop and grow. A great way to do this is to create a safe space for members of their team to engage in healthy debate, sharing their differing views and opinions in a safe environment. A favourite activity of mine is to run an ethical continuum in which members of the team are faced with an ethical issue associated with new and emerging technologies, for example, 'Do Robots Deserve Human Rights?'. They are provided with some stimulus for the debate and encouraged to engage in debate as to whether this is a good thing, or a bad thing and why. This helps everyone on the team exercise their skills in voicing an opinion respectfully and in a safe space, and encourages them to engage in similar conversations when collaborating with each other on projects.


Diving Into The Deep End

A great way to break down hierarchies and encourage different generations to play to their strengths as they collaborate on projects is to set a 'Design Sprint' for your team to work on. I would recommend picking a challenge that does not relate to your day-to-day industry as a way to level the playing field for your staff. For this sprint, create small groups for your team to work in that feature a diverse range of ages and levels of seniority and provide them with a set amount of time to develop an out-of-the-box solution presented to them. This will challenge each member of the team to play to their strengths, share their thoughts under pressure, and work collaboratively to meet the requirements of the task set to them.


These are just some of the things you can start doing to foster impactful intergenerational collaborations on your team.


In Conclusion

Building a dynamic intergenerational team is not an easy thing to do, and it's not a quick fix that you can implement overnight. It requires hard work and time for the members of your team to build the trust and respect required for impactful collaborations, but if done right it can bring immense benefits to your team and your organisation.



Scott Millar

About The Author

Scott Millar is a business leader, keynote speaker, and generational consultant on a mission to help organisations navigate the ever-changing future of work. Launching his business in early high school, Scott has spent the past 10 years working with young professionals and business leaders around the world to explore how technology and innovation are changing the way we live, work, and learn. 


To find out more about Scott and to book him to speak at your next event, head to: www.iamscottmillar.com/speaking 




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