Generational Differences In the Workplace 

From Baby Boomers to Gen Y'ers, a contentious mix of generations can create job-site tensions – as well as opportunities. 

Old man and a young man standing together | Construction Pro Tips

It’s not uncommon these days for three distinct generations of employees to rub elbows on job sites: Baby Boomers (born from 1948 to 1963), Gen Xers (1964 to 1978) and Gen Yers (also known as millennials, 1979 to 1991). As if this unprecedented mix of age groups isn’t enough, the next cohort – already dubbed Generation Z – is preparing to enter the workforce, too.

The upshot of this mosh pit of generations is very disparate views on communication styles, worksite protocols, life/work balance, best-management practices and a host of other issues fraught with potential for tension and misunderstandings. Some workers still favor old-fashioned face-to-face meetings to communicate while others prefer texts, for example. Older workers usually prefer following well-established chain-of-command hierarchies while younger ones have no problem with bypassing a foreman and going right to the top for help. In other cases, younger employees want the kinds of perks – like flexible work schedules and quick promotions – that older workers earned only after years on the job, which can breed resentment and its close cousin, jealousy.

In addition, general stereotypes commonly held by each of these cohorts – millennials are self-entitled and technology-obsessed, for instance, while Boomers are stubbornly resistant to change and unwilling to learn new things – add even more fuel to the fire. As such, it’s no wonder that foremen and job supervisors these days often feel like they’re building the Tower of Babel instead of a house, struggling to calm all of these conflicting “languages” (perceptions, miscommunications and work styles) and get everyone working together toward common goals.

“A lot of companies and organizations are struggling with this,” says Dana Brownlee, the owner of Professionalism Matters (www.professionalismmatters.com), a consulting firm. “It’s all about different perspectives and paradigms that tend to create disconnects.”

So, is fixing these generation gaps mission impossible? Not at all, says Brownlee, who has more than 20 years of training experience.

“The main thing I suggest is don’t hide from it – don’t pretend that these issues don’t exist,” she explains. “You need to get things out in the open and talk about them…give each group opportunities to shine. Proactively talk about their differences so they’re not hidden away, and people only whisper about them during coffee breaks.”

One key to breaking down barriers is understanding the differences between the different generations of workers. Take communication preferences, for example. Truth be told, the more efficient a method of communication is (texting for example), the less effective it can be.

“A text or email, for instance, is fast, but it can sound blunt even though the sender didn’t intend to be blunt,” says Brownlee. And conversely, the more effective the mode of communication, the less efficient it is (such as more time-consuming face-to-face meetings), though the content generally is richer, she notes.

Furthermore, younger tradesmen who aren’t used to verbal communication might view a visit from a foreman for a face-to-face talk as an escalation of an issue, when in fact it’s just the manager’s preferred method of communicating. Nonetheless, since people typically default to their preferred method of communicating, it helps to understand not only what communication methods they prefer, but why they prefer them. That creates context, which helps avoid misunderstandings, she notes.

Relationship-building also is important because weak relationships promote weak communication. To foster such relationships, foremen and supervisors should proactively break up cliques and put employees from different generations on the same teams, starting with non-work-related projects, like a team lunch.

“If you promote relationships between people who don’t normally interact, they develop a more comfortable cocoon where they can ask questions and be more honest about things,” Brownlee points out. “Then the barriers start to come down.”

It’s also important for employees to fully understand the unspoken expectations and protocols that make up the corporate cultures in which they work. That could include everything from never talking to your supervisor’s boss about problems until you’ve first spoken to your supe, to avoiding the use of all capital letters or exclamation points in emails, which can create the wrong impression.

For older employees, job training can ease fears and anxiety about new technologies and ideas. That’s helpful in instances where there’s a generational divide in how employees work to achieve the same goal.

“There’s a good chance the older employees will shut down because they’re now moving into a space where they no longer feel comfortable,” she observes. “That can be a big deal…a huge barrier.”

But in the end, a multi-generational job site doesn’t always have to be a hotbed of dissent. In fact, diverse perspectives and viewpoints can forge stronger employee bonds.

“Sure, it’s easier to manage a homogenous group,” Brownlee explains. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll get the best results. You’re always better off with a more diverse team working on project…it just requires more communication and a more proactive approach to ensure everyone can work together harmoniously.”

Furthermore, older employees can provide younger, less-experienced employees with valuable perspectives and insights. Conversely, younger employees can help older workers feel more comfortable with new technologies and ideas.

“There’s tons of information to share on either end of the generational spectrum,” Brownlee says. “In most cases, diversity is a great thing.”