An expert explains how to engage different generations in the workplace.
At holiday dinners, you’ll often see that the “kids’ table” is separate from the adults’. That dynamic is also present in professional settings: In some office cafeterias, the 20-something employees all chat over their salads at one table, while the 50-something ones commune at another. You might notice the same age division in the conversations by the water cooler, and of course in who heads out to happy hour together at the end of the day. But when the generations mix at work, it can lead to truly great ideas and a sense of community — that is, if you can figure out how to merge them in the right way.
I came of age professionally in the 90s, a time when the expression, “children should be seen, and not heard” felt like it was implicitly implied in my workplace. Young people didn’t have as much of a say as they do in today’s work environments; I rarely recall my managers wanting my opinion. I learned early on in my career to observe closely, and that when I was told to “Figure it out,” I should go away and do just that — solo. Most intergenerational learning was one-directional: wisdom and suggestions were shared from the elder person to the younger, and seldom the other way around. That often felt frustrating, but for the most part, I didn’t question it.
Today, that dynamic wouldn’t go over well. Centennials (those born between 1997 and 2012, also known as Gen Z) and younger millennials, who make up 38 percent of the workforce, are accustomed to being asked their opinion and having it valued. And that’s a good thing because a multi-directional intergenerational dialogue in the workplace brings about growth for all of us.
Today’s workplace consists of 5 generations: The Silent Generation, The Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Centennials. This might sound like a mess, but in actuality, it’s a beautiful opportunity. All of these generations intermingling creates a breeding ground for progress, personally and professionally.
A dialogue between, say, Gen Z and a Boomer at work can lead to a culture where advice, information, and questions are shared across generations and job titles. In that structure, the quality of an idea trumps the concept of a top-down hierarchy, and isolated business silos get replaced with a more collaborative vibe. But the goal shouldn’t be to force a “melting pot.” Rather, we should embrace what’s more like a stir-fry model: a mixture of opinions and perspectives that are distinct, but work in harmony. That way, we can relish how much more savory work can be when we learn from one another.
I know this is true from personal experience. I’m a creativity strategist and speaker, and the other members of my small and nimble team of three are younger than me by a good 10-20 years. Not only do they teach me inventive ways to navigate Google Meet and Instagram, but I embrace their perspective on new business strategies or experiments I’m thinking of rolling out. They often come up with questions, opportunities, or potential roadblocks that I’d otherwise overlook.
Deloitte’s study on Global Human Capital Trends found that only 6 percent of respondents say their company’s leaders know how to direct a multigenerational workforce (even though most corporations say it’s important to have age diversity among employees). Additionally, the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging reports that intergenerational working groups and dialogue enhance a greater sense of connection and purpose, and spark more learning opportunities for everyone involved.
According to a PWC study of Millennials, a big part of their short-term needs includes work environments with minimal silos, and a commitment to personal learning and development.
Once upon a time, personal and professional development were two opposite sides of the spectrum: The professional kind happened on weekdays between 9-5 (and, if you were lucky, you worked for an employer who invested in a nice annual conference or two). Personal development, like practicing mindfulness or taking an improv class, was on your own dime and on your own time, after work or over the weekend. That’s very different from today, when personal and professional development often merge, to spark learning.
If you’re hoping to infuse your own work environment with the creativity that can come from mixing different generations, here are three great places to start:
Mix up who gets to lead meetings. If you’re in a position of power, make sure that junior-level employees get a chance to facilitate a meeting, or anonymously collect agenda questions from everyone. If you think the older employees might balk at this, or that younger ones will be intimidated, take some steps to make it low stakes: Before the meeting, separately ask the junior employee leading it if they’ve got any questions or concerns, or try having them helm a smaller gathering to warm up first.
At meetings, invite questions from everyone. But there’s a caveat: Many of us have been question-shamed at work (never a great feeling), so simply welcoming questions from across generations likely won’t do the trick. So if you’re from an older generation and might hold more power, model the behavior you want to see in meetings, to break the ice. For example, openly share a way that you’re questioning a decision you need to make, and ask coworkers for their suggestions. This transparency shows humility and indirectly gives others permission to do the same.
Bring in regular feedback. Do your best to stick to a weekly 1-on-1 schedule with your manager, or those you manage, and ask questions: How has your week been? What are you excited about? What’s the biggest challenge you’re dealing with right now? That’s especially true now that remote work is baked into many company cultures, meaning there’s less opportunity for spontaneous collaboration by the free-snacks table. A 2016 Gallup poll found that “44 percent of millennials say they are more likely to be engaged when their manager holds regular meetings with them. But only 21 percent of millennials meet with their manager on a weekly basis.” Remember, too, that feedback works both ways: Give people you manage frequent constructive feedback. And ask for their feedback on ways your company’s workflow, or even your personal communication, could be improved.
It’s not always easy to find common ground with people who are different from you, especially if they were born when you were already building your 401K. But reaching across the age “aisle” can be illuminating for younger and older people. So try brainstorming with someone at work whose cultural references (and clothing preferences) bear no resemblance to your own. You might just hatch a pretty spectacular idea.