Ask Dr. Generation: Advice for Better Connections Among Generations

By Katherine Jeffery, CEO, KJ Consulting, Black Mountain, North Carolina, kj@katherinejeffery.com and Fiona Ray, Founder, Ready About Insights, Chicago, Illinois, fionaray@readyaboutinsights.com

Generational Bias Is Real

Let’s start with two true stories of disconnection between generations.

Imagine that you work for a large accounting firm, and in the past six months, you hired a 28-year-old that you believe will take your firm into the future. You are so excited about it and believe in him so much that you put him on a major project team with one of the senior partners because you want to start building a relationship between them. The day arrives for the first team meeting of this major project, and everyone is seated around the conference table and ready to go except for the 28-year-old millennial. You begin to get a little nervous because you are the one who was promoting this guy. You immediately pick up your phone and call him. “Hey Joe, where are you?” He says, “What do you mean where am I?” You say, “The meeting… that really big meeting… it is starting right now, and we need you here.” He replies, “Oh, it is such a beautiful day. I thought I would just call in from the lake.”

This is a true story… and I promise you that the 28-year-old millennial did not wake up that morning thinking, “I hope I do something today that makes my boss want to fire me.”

Now imagine you are a thirty-year senior analyst at a multinational research firm working on an important consumer packaged goods (CPG) client team. Your team uses Microsoft Teams as your communication platform. You are working to get a big presentation finished and need to focus to make the deadline. You change your Teams status to “red” to let your colleagues know you are busy and can’t be interrupted. It feels good to be honest and let the rest of the team know about your present status and what you need for the next few hours. But over the next hour, you get four IMs from your direct manager—a boomer—asking for clarifications on various details. Then you get another IM from the qualitative senior vice president, who happens to be a Gen X, asking if you’ll be observing her groups the next day. This is so frustrating! You thought you made it clear you needed space to get your work done, but now you have to respond to both of them, especially because they are both more senior than you. (Not that you know, but actually neither the boss nor the qual vice president is necessarily asking for an immediate response, but they have a question, so they are just putting it out there.)

We can probably all relate to the point of view of one of the people in each of these stories; it really just depends on your frame of reference. In both cases, upfront communication and clarification of expectations would have alleviated what now has put one promising employee’s future at risk, and the other which has caused unnecessary tension between colleagues of different generations.

Like cultural bias, generational bias can be defined as the phenomenon of interpreting and judging phenomena by standards inherent to one’s own culture. As with any form of bias, it can hold us back from true understanding and connection. In fact, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, http://bit.ly/VIEWS-The-Economist-Diversity, one of the top diversity challenges in North America is age.

As researchers, we know how important it is to find common ground to build trust with others. By building a better understanding of the context and experiences of other generations, we can build empathy and overcome some of the barriers that lead to generational bias. This can lead to more open and rewarding relationships with people of all ages, whether they be research participants, clients, colleagues, or family members.

Building Generational Awareness

Chart A provides a snapshot of each generation—and the experiences that shape their mindset and impact how they work and communicate. It’s easy to see why we sometimes don’t get each other! It’s also easy to understand why it is so important to build understanding. In fact, for the first time ever, five generations are working alongside one another, and the road is not an easy one.

This is where Katherine comes in! Katherine’s consulting firm, KJ Consulting, helps businesses navigate the largest generational shift in history. Her training and leadership development work helps businesses, teams, and individuals develop safe and healthy cultures where everyone can flourish.

Let’s tap into her wisdom to learn more about how to get the most out of your relationships with people from other generations.

Advice from Dr. Generation (aka Dr. Katherine Jeffery)

OK, Let’s Start with Boomers

Dear Dr. Generation: I need some words of wisdom to share. I am the mentor to a young woman who recently earned an MBA. She just started her first corporate role and is reporting to a 63-year-old female partner at the firm. What can I tell her to help her work well with her new boss?

Great question! First, I would encourage her to take time to ask her boss questions and to listen to the wisdom she has. The boomer generation has been around, has much to share, and really wants to share it with those who will listen. While her boss may have different ideas and values than she does, encourage her to take in what applies, but stay open to receiving golden nuggets as she listens to the full context of whatever it is that she is sharing.

Second, I would encourage her to ask her boss about her career journey and the sacrifices she had to make to get to where she is today. So many boomers feel like they have given up so much to make the world a better place for those that came behind them, and now that they are on the other side, they often feel unappreciated or misunderstood. Taking ten to fifteen minutes to listen to their stories can go a long way with a boomer. (We have all heard that the millennials like to have a voice… so do the boomers!)

Tips for Better Understanding Baby Boomers

Strength: Context. Boomers are really good at reading context. They understand non-verbals. If a meeting doesn’t go well, ask a boomer what happened. They can often quickly share helpful insights they gleaned by observing facial expressions and body language of people around the room or on the call.

Fear: Am I relevant? Boomers are wondering if they still have what it takes to navigate rapidly-changing technology, and also the new ways that younger generations understand leadership and the world of work.

Do: Listen to boomers. They have been around a while and they have a lot of wisdom they are ready to share.

Don’t: Downplay their sacrifice. Boomers sacrificed a lot to make the world a better place for their children. Take time to ask what that sacrifice looked like for them.

Gen X: Talking ‘bout My Generation!

Dear Dr. Generation: We are both Gen Xers, and no one ever talks about us. Why do we seem to be the forgotten generation?

There are sixty-five million Gen Xers, while there are sixty-nine million boomers and seventy-two million millennials (Gen Xers are smaller but mighty). Gen Xers are also known as the latchkey generation. The divorce rate had tripled, and many more women were in the workforce, which meant that Gen Xers had to come home from school, let themselves in (which is illegal in many states), do homework, babysit siblings, make dinner, and watch a lot of MTV.

As a result, Gen Xers tend to be very adaptable and flexible. They make things happen on their own and take responsibility for what happens around them. While many felt overlooked as children, they now feel this in the workplace because they often tend to fill in the gaps and keep things moving rapidly ahead while making sure none of the plates assigned to them stop spinning.

On top of this, many companies are working hard to make sure they keep their top millennial employees. They have heard that millennials want those key positions/titles, and they want them yesterday. In the process, they are promoting their millennial employees over and above their Gen X counterparts who have been loyal to the company for the past ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Harvard Business Review (http://bit.ly/VIEWS-GenX-Retention) published a study in 2019 finding that 40 percent of Gen X leaders want to leave their current job, and this is one of the reasons. What would happen to your organization if 40 percent of Gen X leaders left in a month? Most companies hold dinners/lunches so that their millennial employees feel heard. When was the last time you asked a Gen X how they felt about something?

Tips for Better Understanding Gen Xers

Strength: Responsibility. Gen Xers have a keen sense of responsibility. They grew up as latchkey kids. They are used to doing things themselves.

Fear: Do you see my value? Gen Xers have been loyal for years and now many companies are promoting their millennial employees over their Gen Xers. Everything seems targeted to millennials. Many Xers feel overlooked and undervalued.

Do: Be direct. Gen Xers like to be efficient and want to get straight to the point.

Don’t: Micromanage. Gen Xers are very independent and adaptable. To micromanage one is like squashing their very soul.

Millennials: Are They Really so Entitled?

Dear Dr. Generation: At one of my client’s companies, the entire marketing team is made up of millennials, and it’s hard to keep up with all of the turnover. It seems like every month someone who seemed to be doing really well leaves the company. Help me understand!

Millennials call this bouncing. Their average stay at a job is three years. They want to make sure they are doing all they can do to advance in their career and be on the right track to where they ultimately want to go.

Boomers were promised a pension in return for longevity and loyalty to a company. This is no longer the case. There are few incentives for someone to stay long-term with a company. Gallup (http://bit.ly/VIEWS-Gallup-Millennials) has found that millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy over $30 billion every year.

I think it will be interesting to see how things shift as a result of COVID-19. Companies that are caring well for their employees during this time are finding a 25 percent increase in loyalty. If a company can capitalize on caring for their employees in a holistic manner, they may find that they stay for the long-term, and we may see less bouncing in the future.

Many companies find it helpful to take the time to discuss career goals with their millennial employees, being certain to cast a vision for where they see them going within their companies (career mapping). Many millennials want to have a road laid out ahead of them, and many feel like they don’t know if there is room for growth in their current position. Even if you don’t have the exact position available for them that they want, just having the conversation with them communicates that you see them and are working toward growing them in their career.

Tips for Better Understanding Millennials

Strength: Confidence. Millennials are a confident generation. They have always been told that they can be or do anything.

Fear: Am I going to be heard? Millennials grew up having a voice in the family. They are the first generation to think of their parents as friends. They want to know that you care about what they have to say and that their thoughts and opinions matter.

Do: Offer growth, flexibility, and purpose. Millennials want to show up as their best selves every day. They want others to see them and help develop them as holistic people. They also value flexibility and want their days to be spent doing something with great purpose.

Don’t: Dictate, but rather Negotiate. Millennials are used to being asked how they feel about things. They do not respond well to being told what to do. Make sure you take time to get their buy-in.

Gen Z: The Up-and-Comers

Dear Dr. Generation: We have a new college intern on our team—and he has purple hair. What’s the deal? What would be the best way for us to coach him and help him to contribute meaningfully to our company?

Gen Zers love to express their personal style, and they like to be seen as the unique individuals that they are. Be careful not to dismiss them based on their appearance or the different ways they view the world. Remember, they grew up in a very different world than the rest of us. If we take on a posture of learning when we are with them, we can begin to understand today’s world through a whole new lens.

This generation has so much to offer. They are by far the most entrepreneurial, they are excellent problem solvers, and they love the idea of an apprenticeship. They want to learn from those around them. Study. Practice. Study. Practice. Over 50 percent of those in the workplace reported that they want to work in the office and get to know and learn from their coworkers. (So, you can imagine how discouraging the pandemic has been for many of them.)

As your intern thinks about contributing in a meaningful way, I would encourage him to do a lot of listening. To actively seek to understand what other generations prefer, and how he can better understand how they think about things instead of always expecting them to think like he does. Fortunately, 75 percent of them report that they are happy to mentor an older colleague when it comes to technology. They have been teaching their parents their whole lives, so they expect to help others as well.

Tips for Better Understanding Gen Z

Strength: Resourceful. Gen Zers have been raised by Gen X parents who taught them how to figure things out as they go. They tend to be great problem-solvers and are very entrepreneurial.

Fear: Can I trust you? Gen Z knows they can’t trust everything they see on the Internet. They want to be around people they can look in the eye and trust. They highly value authenticity and transparency.

Do: Face-to-Face. Over 50 percent of this generation who are in the workforce report that they would rather work in the office with their co-workers. They have an apprenticeship mindset and want to learn from those around them.

Don’t: Put them in a box. Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history. They want things personalized and customized for themselves and their peers.

Tips for Researchers

Thank you, Katherine! To wrap up, what advice do you have for researchers? How might we keep these generational differences in mind when working on a qualitative research study?

Here are three things to think about:

  1. How are you communicating across the generations? While millennials and Gen Z may give you in-depth responses online or over social media, boomers and Gen Xers may prefer connecting over the phone or sending an email.
  2. If you are not a member of a certain generation, there is a good chance that you don’t fully understand that generation. Stay curious. Don’t make assumptions. Be willing to meet them where they are.
  3. Be careful not to interpret data through your own lens. Be open to understanding responses from a perspective other than your own. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Even a simple word (“woke”) can have a different meaning from one generation to the next.

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