Building bridges to cross the generation gap at work

15 August 2019

Love them or leave them, the fact is we simply can’t ignore them – the difference that is between employers, the Baby Boomers and their younger employees, the Millennials.

One of the most common complaints Baby Boomer leaders have about Millennials is that they seem to have a sense of entitlement, resulting in part from a co-dependency with their “helicopter parents” hovering forever over them, always at the ready to meet their every need.

For Millennials it is the rigidity, the lack of flexibility, the “overbearing attitude” of the Baby Boomers – to do things as they have always been done – that drives them to despair.

And the frustration is not just between Baby Boomers and Millennials, Generation X is in the mix as well. Gen Xers are the often-overlooked generation that shares characteristics with Baby Boomers. They show up to work on time, are formally dressed, and are prepared to wait patiently for five years or more before asking for that long overdue promotion.

Generously, in an interview with a group of Millennials in Germany recently, one young employee said: “We have much to thank the previous generations for. No generation has grown up as carefree and with as many possibilities as ours. However, it has come at a price: We have been left with a society that revolves around profit rather than sustainability, where material prosperity counts more than individual happiness.”

What is surprising, however, is that if you go beyond the surface you will find that each generation wants the same things. They want respect, security, acknowledgment; they want to make a meaningful contribution, live meaningful lives and have a secure future.

But the vastly different environments in which Millennials, Baby Boomers, and Gen X grew up is what determines how well they understand each other. Or not.

Clearly, they have all experienced vastly different economic climates. The older generation grew up in a stable economy where they could join one company and climb the corporate ladder gaining promotions, a home and a family along the way. As long as you worked hard and paid attention, your future was secured.

Not so for Millennials. In today’s world, there is a lot less security, the economic climate is far less predictable. It is no longer true that the route to success is by climbing the corporate ladder.

Millennials want more than anything to be valued “as individuals” rather than as “production units” in a business world.

So asserts Jenny Watson, a human resources specialist, who explored generational relationships as part of her master’s degree at Middlesex University, London. Watson is the co-founder of Swiss-based company, Leading Brains, that pioneered the Human Behavioural Framework as a way of applying brain science to the real world.

According to Watson, research shows that all these generations share the same desire to fulfill basic human needs: the need for self-esteem, for an amount of control over their lives and the need for meaningful relationships.

It’s how they get there where the gaps develop. “Perennial values and a combination of upbringing and personality do not change – but their life experiences are different,” says Watson.

“Millennials feel the need to make an impact, and they are just as motivated about career progression, but how they express their ambitions is vastly different. They want companies to invest in them, develop them, and if they do, they will, in turn, invest their time, skills and dedication in the company.”

Older generations want their employees to invest and show their commitment first – before they’ll consider returning the investment. They expect youngsters to get to work on time, pay attention while they are there, and get the job done.

So, it seems that the gap is not so much a generational gap, as it is a cultural gap.

Perhaps if we spend more time learning from each other, instead of bemoaning the differences and perceived shortcomings, we can make sure the future will benefit from the present.

After all, we do want the same things.

[This piece was written by HWB Communications Managing Director Lynn Erasmus, and was first published online by the Public Relations Global Network]