From Where We Sit

Overcoming generational differences in the workplace

Christmas is generally a time spent with family. Everywhere we go – restaurants, parks, cinemas, even cemeteries – we see families spending time together. As I was having lunch at a restaurant the other day, a family of eight walked in. “This family covers four generations. Granny is a boomer, Mom and Dad are Gen Xers, their three children are millennials, and the two baby boys are Gen Zs,” I thought to myself.

It might seem weird that these are the things I noticed while having lunch, but I recently finished my school paper on multi-generations at the workplace, and so this was like an aftershock to an earthquake-like semester at graduate school.

I thought further, “If I excluded the Gen Zs, the family seated near me would be a live demo of the global workforce by 2020. That’s probably what the office meeting would look like—Granny is calm but authoritative, Mom and Dad wait for Granny to talk, while the children just speak their mind.”

A 2015 study about the multi-generational workforce said that millennials would account for 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020. I checked the numbers at our company.

 

We didn’t have to wait for 2020, because our present demographics show that we millennials now comprise 80 percent of the workforce, Gen Xers 20 percent, and Baby Boomers less than 1 percent. I remember telling students in one of my earlier presentations, “We were founded by boomers, led by Gen Xers, and powered by millennials.”

But what does this mean? What is the impact of the increasing number of millennials and the depleting count of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers on the workplace?

Let us quickly review the generations as described by Dr. Mary Donohue (founder and CEO of Donohue Learning) in her series of TED talks:

“Boomers are called builders. Their driver (motivation) is legacy creation. They are the architects of today’s millennials. They built the corporations, the bureaucracies, and the volunteer structures. They have been working their entire life and have no intention of quitting. They process information in an auditory capacity, which means they are conversation clever. They think in terms of words. They love word-based entertainment.

Growing up, boomers were taught Latin or Spanish, and media was mostly radio and newspaper. When conversing with them, it’s effective to use auditory sentence patterns, such as, “I hear what you’re saying is…” When they’re stressed, it is best that boomers are given time to talk and talk and talk or write long emails. Talking helps them create their legacy.

“Gen Xers are the doers. Their motivation is money, work, and the fear of losing it. They are independent and entrepreneurial, but mostly suffer from the ‘Prince Charming’ syndrome, i.e., waiting for somebody older to leave so they can finally take charge and make changes. Gen Xers are the television generation, hence, process information visually. If boomers love language, Gen Xers love pictures. If Gen Xers need to be engaged, visual sentence patterns must be used. For example, ‘I’m not clear with what you’re saying, can you provide more details?’

“Millennials are the adopters. They adopt, adopt, and improve. Their driver is development. They are the ‘loved’ generation. If Gen Xers were taught to compete in school, millennials were taught about self-esteem. Millennials have difficulty in trusting, because they grew up in the age of technology where information may be readily available, but not necessarily true. They process information in terms of action (kinesthetically), just as the internet is action-based. If millennials want to be entertained, they create it using technology. A millennial has to be asked of their opinion, because their parents did. They are considered equals. When given an assignment or objective, they need only instructions or structure, but would want to execute things on their own and improve what’s currently existing. They learn by doing things.”

Given these differences, a clash of generations is not far from reality when you put them in the same workplace. When the millennial staff speaks their mind, they might be perceived as disrespectful by the Gen Xer manager. Because Gen Xers don’t usually speak, they just wait for the boomer’s instruction.

When the Gen Xer manager keeps quiet, because they are trying to visualize a solution in their mind and do not react to things, they might be perceived by the boomer owner as not listening to their concerns. This stresses the boomer, because they feel that they are unable to create a legacy.

How should each organization manage and overcome generational differences? Below are some suggestions:

1) Awareness is key. One of my professors would always say, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. And you cannot measure something that is not known to you. This means that the first step is to look into your employee listing and check the demographics (age, gender, etc). Are there boomers in your company? How many are Gen Xers? Millennials?

2) Communication is also key. I cannot agree more with Dr. Donohue when she said, “Because of technology, we have lost our ability to communicate “generationally.” A great communicator understands that each generation responds differently to leadership and workplace technology. They know they are different, that their leaders and followers are different, that they are motivated differently, and that their job is to adjust to meet the needs of each generation, to manage up and manage down.”

3) Leverage on the idea that all generations want the same thing. It is true that millennials are motivated by work that contributes to the organization that they belong to. They want meaning and value, but so do a Gen Xer and a boomer. Differences lie in the manner of expression and means of communication. With mutual respect and understanding, however, differences can be inconsequential.

Having multi-generations in the workplace may greatly highlight noticeable differences. But come to think of it, the very same differences could be the source of a unique culture that can be the company’s competitive advantage.

Elah Andal Perez is a senior manager at People & Culture of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 21 partners and over 850 staff members. For your comments, please email elah.andal@ph.gt.com or PAGrantThornton.marketscomm@ph.gt.com. For more information about P&A Grant Thornton, visit our website www.grantthornton.com.ph.

 

As published in The Manila Times, dated 27 December 2017