Gen Y v. Boomers: Generational Differences in Communication

I just got off the phone with Jim Blasingame, where I was a guest on his daily radio program for small business. Jim was curious about what my take was on some of the communication challenges occurring between the most recent generation to enter the workforce, Generation Y, and their bosses, most of whom are members of the Baby Boom generation.

My mostly Boomer clients, and, to some extent, older Gen X'ers, are going nuts about this. They are throwing up their hands in frustration. On the one hand, they have all been in business for a long time, now, and feel they have a pretty good grasp of how the business world works. On the other, they are acutely aware of the fact that they desperately need these young people to staff and help grow their businesses. Problem is that there seems to be a big disconnect when it comes to standards of communication and behavior.

There are a few parts to this problem. One part is that there are always conflicts between generations. Another is that the level of workplace formality has been declining for some time. Think dressing down and tele-commuting. Still another is the way this generation has been raised. In general, Gen Y has been the most privileged and child-centered generation in history.

The biggest one, however, has been the advent of technology and its offspring, email, IM and txt. Gen Y has grown up in and around this world of virtual communication. Unlike their parents, they have not had to spend nearly as much time socializing face-to-face. Their social interactions have been conducted while sitting alone in front of a computer, IM-ing with several people at once. Therefore they did not gain much experience reading the nonverbal cues inherent in face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication, aka, the telephone. This dependence on remote forms of communication has left many younger workers bereft of interpersonal skills that Boomers value such as deference and respect.

The Boomers, on the other hand, have had technology thrust upon them, and although most have learned what they had to in order to get by and stay current, they have largely left the "technological heavy lifting" to others. Boomers have stuck to many of the old ways of doing business that their parents taught them, calling on clients in person, networking at business meetings, showing respect and deference to those who are more senior or with whom they would like to do business.

So what can be done to reconcile these differences? For one thing, both generations have some adapting to do. Boomers need to recognize that the workplace has changed and for the better, I believe. They also have to take a good deal of responsibility for the way Generation Y communicates and behaves. Boomers are Gen Y's parents, after all. They have to make a continuing commitment to helping this latest generation find their way via some significant mentoring and training. They're not just going to pick it up. Finally, they have to accept that Gen Y has a lot to offer. Not only are they facile with and open to just about any technology that comes down the pike, they are an incredibly hard-working and competitive generation. They are on top of the latest news and are voracious researchers. There is much that the Boomers can learn from this ambitious and savvy group of young workers.

Generation Y needs to understand that the Boomers do know a lot – more than they do in many critical areas. The younger people will also need patience and understanding: patience with their older bosses and understanding of the need to come out from behind the shelter that electronic communication provides and meet their public face-to-face. While it certainly has its place, technology will never be a complete substitute for the connection that is made meeting people in person. They also need to know that learning how a business works is not the same a cramming for a college exam. Such things take time.

There is much to be optimistic about. As Boomers begin retiring in droves and younger workers take their rightful place as business leaders, the workplace will evolve to meet the needs of the talented millions. Mining this talent will indeed require an openness and dialogue like no other. I can hardly think of anything more exciting.

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5 Comments

  • Joe Raasch

    We have experienced generational differences on large project teams. Having four generations represented makes for some challenging change management and leadership!

    The boomers value face time and hours at the office, the Gen Y (and some Gen X) value productivity and want to have a reasonable balance of time at the office.

  • Ben Robertson

    As a 29 year old Xer American I don't feel entitled per se. However, I was raised in a small farm town in Iowa, so I endured a more traditional upbringing. Yet, I have encountered some difficulties in finding gainful employment recently.

  • Adam Jacobson

    I've recently hired two guys right out of college and I haven't had some of the problems you mentioned. The difference? both are immigrants who came to this country at about age 11. They want to learn. They don't feel entitled. Positive experience all around.

  • Ruth Sherman

    Mark makes a good point. I am certainly aware that cultures differ widely with regard to this issue. Since my clients are mostly American or Western based businesses, I write from that perspective and for that audience. Food for thought and, perhaps, a future post.

  • Mark de Roo

    Thank you, Ruth, for these insights. They're right on! However, I suspect your comments have a distinctly either American or Western perspective. We can't assume that our cultural dynamic regarding generations is the same world-wide. Increasingly, any topic these days should be considered in a global context.