Navigating The Subconscious Struggles of Our Cross-Generational Workforce

January 31, 2019

I was having a conversation a few weeks ago with a business owner.  Let’s call him Michael.

Michael is extremely successful and owns a large business with over 500 employees. Now in his early sixties, he founded the company over 30 years ago. Our discussion was about the generational differences between the baby boomers and millennials. He shared with me an example of why he believes the millennial generation does not match up to the baby boomer generation.

“Just recently I asked one of my employees, a 22-year-old, to pump up the tires on one of our pieces of equipment. Can you believe he didn’t know how to use a tire gauge or an air compressor?” He said this with a mix of surprise and frustration.

“Michael”, I said in response. “I don’t know how to put horseshoes on a horse.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” he asked.

In the 1920s, automobiles were becoming commonplace. By the end of the decade, millions of automobiles had been sold, and the usage of horses for personal transportation was virtually obsolete. People born around the turn of the century most likely never used a horse for transportation; they also likely never had to worry about putting horseshoes on a horse. However, it was natural for someone born a generation prior to have significant experience applying horseshoes; they would also probably be frustrated with those who did not possess the skill.

Each generation finds common ground in their experiences, perceptions, and knowledge. As someone who graduated high school in 1980, I used telephones with wires and sent documents via fax machines. Meetings early in my career were always held in person, and working from home meant you were unemployed. Researching companies required opening the phone book. Data or information always came in the form of papers delivered via the postal service. In today’s working world, these practices are nearly obsolete.

I recently spoke to a large group about challenges and trends. During the Q&A session, an older gentleman in the crowd began speaking about the millennial generation. After uttering a few grievances he said, “I just don’t know how to deal with this generation. They just don’t work like I used to when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.” I wasn’t surprised by his statement. I surely don’t work like I did twenty or thirty years ago either. The way many of us work today has changed and will continue to do so.

One of my biggest challenges as a young professional was navigating a workplace with colleagues from both my generation and my parent’s generation. I remember being frustrated by a set of written and unwritten rules about how business was to be conducted. I remember believing there had to be better ways of doing things. I remember when a new method or ideology was introduced to the market, the “older generation” rendered it a passing fad with little potential for impact.

I realize now that I learned a great deal from my parent’s generation. I also realize the significance of adapting to the means and methods of the younger generations. I know for certain that for a company to be the most successful, both generations must accept and embrace their differences and commonalities.

In the future, work and business will continue to evolve. The workforce will still consist of a variety of age groups, from seasoned veterans to young and inexperienced professionals. Each may continue to be frustrated with one another, or they can reap the benefits of working together.

For those struggling with generational differences in the workplace, I suggest shifting your focus to the advantages—rather than the complications—of cross-generational teams. What will always matter in business are the results. The best results come from solid working relationships between individuals of multiple generations.

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