Isn’t Age Just a Number? The Myth of Generational Conflict at Work

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Today’s workplace is doing a good job at challenging stereotypes says Brandi Britton

Different values, expectations and work ethics certainly exist in the workplace. Generations aren’t homogeneous, of course, but each cohort’s comments about their own general preferences provide useful insights about the overall group.

Generation Z — those born in the 1990s — is the first truly digital generation. They’ve never known a world without the internet, and most can’t imagine life without a smartphone. Growing up in the information age has made them constant learners. Many of them feel confident about pushing forward with new ideas and challenging the status quo. In return, they expect to feel connected through regular feedback, input and praise.

More seasoned employees (those who have been working for a while) and are used to a more top-down leadership style, can find this outlook to be frustrating. Some boomers and earlier Gen Xers may also feel threatened that their years of experience are being overlooked in favor of so-called whiz kids and their aptitude for new technology.

The survey says … it may not be a problem

Being managed by someone less tenured could naturally result in feeling sidelined and undervalued, but a recent OfficeTeam survey reveals age differences many not be that big of a deal. More than eight in 10 professionals (82 percent) said they would be comfortable reporting to a manager who’s younger than they are, and 91 percent wouldn’t mind supervising employees older than themselves.

But working across generations isn’t always effortless. Respondents in the survey identified dissimilar work ethics or values (26 percent) and leadership or learning styles (22 percent) as the biggest challenges with having a younger boss. Using technology in different ways (25 percent) was named the top struggle when managing someone who’s older.

Here are three tips that can help:

  1. Get rid of preconceived notions. As our survey shows, many boomers don’t really mind being managed by millennials, and younger generations don’t have much of a problem having older generations reporting to them. If you’re a Gen Z office manager who feels awkward because the receptionist has worked at the company for several decades, know that more likely than not, the more tenured employee is open-minded enough not to be bothered by the age difference.
  2. Talk about more than work. The office is not a social club, but neither should it be all work and no play. Robert Half’s happiness report finds that positive work relationships are one of the main drivers of employee job satisfaction. Build camaraderie by sharing a meal with a variety of colleagues. When the company plans after-work social events, make the time to attend. The more you get to know people of different generations, the more you realize you may have more in common with them than not.
  3. Embrace various methods to get your point across. Each generation has a tendency to communicate differently. An effective way to improve relationships with colleagues of different generations is to use their preferred methods. For example, some boomers tend to have a guarded communication style. Gen Xer workers have a fondness for emails, which rose to the fore as many of them entered the workplace. Gen Zers prefer a multi-channel approach — using a combination of texts, Snapchat, Slack, Skype for Business and even old-school phone calls and face-to-face get-togethers. Tailor your message, as well as the communication method for individual colleagues.

Today’s workplace is doing a good job at challenging stereotypes, but a small generation gap may still exist. Do your share to bridge the divide, and you will be contributing to a happier and more productive office environment.

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About Author

Brandi Britton

Brandi Britton is District President for Office Team (www.officeteam.com), the world’s largest specialised staffing firm for office professionals. OfficeTeam has more than 300 locations worldwide, which place tens of thousands of highly skilled candidates each year into positions ranging from executive and personal assistant to receptionist and customer service specialist. Brandi is a frequent speaker on employment issues and has been interviewed by the media on workplace topics.

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