Bridging the Generational Gap in the Workplace

Let's not rush to judgment.

When speaking to audiences about social media, I have a photo I like to put up on the screen. It’s a photo I captured of my nephew, Jimmy, age 22, at the top of the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. There is this breathtaking, mountainous backdrop, and what is Jimmy looking at? His phone.

The picture is misleading. It looks like he's ignoring the scenery. He was actually snapping photos and sending them to friends on Snapchat and posting them on Facebook. He did this the entire trip.

How do I do the same thing? I snap photos throughout the trip, then download them onto my computer. I review each one and delete the crummy photos. By that time, I'm too tired to send them out to anyone, so I save it for another day. A few of my photos make it onto Twitter.

Who is more efficient? Jimmy was getting it done on the run. Jimmy is a Millennial. I am a Gen Xer. 


Understanding generational differences can improve our ability to work together.

Today, there are as many as four generations in the American workplace. While drawing distinctions between these generations and analyzing their associated characteristics isn't an exact science, the Pew Research Center has defined these cohorts as follows:

Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 64, age 54-72)

  • Into following rules and processes (raised by the WWI and II generation).
  • Success-oriented. Competitive. How do you move up?  You earn it.
  • Currently fill most of the executive and management positions in this country.

Gen Xers (born 1965 – 80 age 38-53)

  • Value education and degrees.
  • Want more work-life balance; flexibility to work from home occasionally.
  • The biggest spenders: they spend more on home mortgages than previous generations. They are also brand loyal.

Millennials/ Gen Y (born 1981 – 1996 age 22-37)

  • Glued to their phones and great online networkers.
  • Comfortable with lack of privacy on social media. Looking to be part of the story themselves by blogging, putting up videos, selfies.
  • Into experiences rather than material things.

Post-Millennials (born 1997 – Present) 

  • Becoming skeptical of value of higher ed; less willing to go into debt for college.
  • They are more into privacy than the Millennials and not as into Facebook and posting permanent images. They prefer Snapchat where the images disappear.
  • They value diversity and inclusion. They are globally minded.

Each generation has different communication styles and values.

Each generation has different communication styles and values. Understanding those differences can improve our ability to work together.

While working on my MBA, I had a work colleague who did not have a college degree, who seemed resentful. Though I treated her kindly, she would complain about my work to my supervisor and make cutting remarks to me, such as, “Just because you are getting your MBA, doesn’t mean you are going anywhere with this company.”

Was this just jealousy?  No, this was a generation gap.  This woman was a Boomer, who had been with the company for 30 years. I was a Gen Xer, with the company only two years. While Gen Xers value education and degrees, Boomers value experience. This woman, who spent many years working her way up, might have thought I was trying to climb past her with my MBA.

One of my clients is a high-end hotel, with a young wedding coordinator on staff. To the wedding clients, she says things like, “Hey girl!” Or “Shut the front door!” 

The sales manager said, “We want her to be more professional. Our clients are paying thousands of dollars for these wedding packages and they expect more of an expert assisting them, rather than a best friend.”

The wedding coordinator is a Millennial. But many of the hotel’s wedding clients are Gen Xers, paying for their children’s wedding.

The wedding coordinator’s intentions were good. The purpose of professionalism, which is key to customer service, is to make the people around us comfortable. She was being casual with clients, thinking casual would make the clients more comfortable. But sometimes being casual creates discomfort.

In dealing with anyone new, especially one a generation or more older, err on the side of formality. Once you get to know the person, you will know whether you need to stay formal or if you can be more casual.


Why can't we all just get along?

Gen Xers are feeling a bit squeezed in today’s workplace. The Boomers are taking longer to retire, so Gen X is anxious to take their place. But GenX has the Millennials nipping at their heels to replace them.

Millennials are often mischaracterized as inattentive and not good at face-to-face communication. But as demonstrated by my nephew Jimmy, they are incredibly efficient when it comes to communicating with digital devices and getting the word out.

I sit down to coffee with millennials frequently and they are highly energetic. They are organizers. Many of them, in their 20s, are running communications departments for various organizations, planning major events with multimillion-dollar budgets and running nonprofits.


It's about awareness – and a willingness to adjust.

The Post-Millennial group known as i-Geners, or Gen Z, is just coming into the workplace. The i-Geners haven't known a world without smartphones or the Internet. A few years ago, I was teaching an etiquette class for children at a country club and I brought a regular land-line phone to practice phone manners.  A few kids said, “What’s that?”


A friend of mine, who is a CEO of a tech company with a lot of younger workers, has a screen on his desk, set up with instant messages for all his employees. This keep lines of communication open and satisfies his younger employees’ need for more instant, regular feedback.

One note of caution. It’s wise not to overanalyze – not everyone fits into generational stereotypes. But an awareness of generational differences and a willingness to make adjustments can make our organizations more efficient, less contentious and increasingly productive.


About the Author

Callista Gould has spent over 11 years as a certified etiquette instructor, speaking at universities and businesses across the United States. Her new book, The Exceptional Professional: What You Need to Know to Grow Your Career, is an entertaining read, filled with true stories of etiquette triumphs and disasters in the world of business and nonprofits. She can be reached at cgould@cultureandmanners.com or on Twitter @MannersThatMove. She offers a free Etiquette Tip of the Week by email. Learn more at www.cultureandmanners.com.

  1. workplace dynamics