By Mrunal Shah, Best Best & Krieger LLP
There’s an old adage widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw that says: “If youth is wasted on the young, then wisdom is wasted on the old.” While the interpretation may vary, the saying at its core seems to illustrate the importance of gleaning from different generations.
Let’s establish a few definitions to ensure consistent reference:
- Baby Boomers: born 1946-1964
- Generation X: born 1965-1980
- Millennials/Generation Y: born 1981-1995
- Generation Z: born 1996-2010
While Baby Boomers dominated the workplace for decades, according to statista.com, in 2019 Millennials were the largest generation group in the U.S., with an estimated population of 72.1 million. The continually shifting composition of our population causes shifts in workplace dynamics across industries and shapes public policy for municipalities across the country. With the dominant generation so young (and not necessarily dominating in terms of expertise or authority), it is more important than ever to recognize that each generation has many important attributes and perspectives that serve to enhance the overall mission of work. Our goal then should be for workplaces to employ a variety of tools that promote understanding, respect, and intergenerational learning and unity.
Turning Generational Barriers into Generational Bridges
People in different generations tend to value different communication methods and work arrangements. Understanding and appreciating generational preferences can help break stereotypes and barriers to foster a more cohesive workplace. Here are some tools to help:
Understand Preferred Communication
A 2017 study from Robert Half Management Resources revealed that communication is the most difficult aspect of managing a workplace comprised of as many as four generations of employees. Specifically, 30% of the executives surveyed said communication styles represent the greatest difference among employees from different generations.
The research found that Baby Boomers tend to be more reserved, Gen X prefers a control-and-command style, Gen Y prefers a more collaborative approach to communication, and Gen Z likes in-person interactions best. To change this barrier into a bridge, team members can directly discuss the ways with which they each prefer to be communicated. For example, younger employees may prefer an email or text while older employees may prefer phone or in-person conversations. This may also apply to different ways of learning. Some younger employees might want to watch a video tutorial, while an older employee might prefer a hands-on approach to learning.
Tool: Encourage teams to ask questions, replace assumptions and design communication strategies with others in mind.
Understanding Preferred Working Arrangements
Many Millennials value work environments that allow for an integration of work and life, while Baby Boomers prefer to go to the office and then home, allowing for a separation of their worlds. This difference has become especially pertinent due to COVID-19. Younger generations may have more easily adjusted to working from home and managing emerging technologies (e.g., Zoom), while older generations may have struggled to work with the same focus and adapt to new platforms for professional interactions. Some in the younger generations have been grateful for the balance working from home has afforded and are therefore more reticent to return to the office full-time while others may prefer return to the office to have dedicated work time and space. Understanding the needs of employees and their commitments should be a priority in a multi-generational workplace.
Tool: Workplaces might conduct surveys to understand preferred working arrangements and then seek flexible solutions based on those results.
Understanding (and Leveraging) Different Approaches to Work
Older generations have experience, expertise and ways of approaching work that are tried and true. What younger generations lack in experience, they make up for in innovation, creativity and a drive to make a positive impact in the world. Rather than assume the younger generations simply need to learn the tried and true approaches, workplaces should recognize that bringing together both approaches to work will create the best results. Offering seasoned professionals an opportunity to be a mentor to a younger employee leverages the different generations and their experiences to your organization’s advantage. Older employees can share their knowledge and experience while getting help with their workload. Younger employees might provide innovative ideas and tech-savvy approaches that complement their mentor’s work and the organization as a whole. This will enhance your team and also assist with succession planning throughout your departments.
Tool: Consider establishing an official mentorship program at your municipality and incentivize older employees to take younger employees under their wing, while listening to and trying their ideas.
Understanding generational differences is important both for operational success and employee satisfaction. With some communication and consideration, the generational gap can be bridged to ensure a harmonious workplace.
Mrunal Shah is a partner in the Public Finance practice group of Best Best & Krieger LLP and serves as a co-chair on the firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. She serves as bond, special and disclosure counsel for a variety of transactions representing public agencies throughout California. Contact Mrunal at firstname.lastname@example.org.