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Can We Actually Bridge the Generational Gap?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

This morning, as I was scrolling through the myriad of junk in my newsfeed, I came across a video of two teens trying to figure out how to use a rotary phone. It was hilarious to watch them struggle with the dial. It was so easy for me to judge these kids, say "what morons!," have a laugh, then move on.

But it reminded me of something worth sharing. At of one of my leadership development retreats about a year ago, we touched on generational differences creating challenges in the workforce. That video, and more appropriately - my reaction, this morning prompted me to think this might be a good time for a refresher.

According to a Bloomberg analysis, Generation Z will account for 32% of the earth’s population in 2019 - THIS YEAR - compared to Millennials, at 31.5%. Gen Z, born after 2001, are quite different from their Millennial predecessors (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) in that they’ve only ever known a digital world, and they grew up amid the war on terror and the global recession. That rotary phone certainly never fit into their reality.

Now consider that Baby Boomers, who were significantly influenced by the sociological and economic post-World War II factors, comprise much of senior management in organizations, Gen X’ers make up a lot of executives and business owners, and millennials fill a large percentage of the manager and supervisor positions across corporate America. Baby Boomers have complained about Millennials for a decade now, not understanding how they think, work or communicate. And Millennials don’t feel much differently about the Boomers. Adding yet another twist, the Gen Z cohort will be soon entering the workforce and they are different from all previous cohorts.

Boomers think Millennials are too brash and opinionated, for example. They don’t know how to motivate Millennials. Millennials say that Boomers are too guarded in their communication and don’t relate to their values. There is a gap of understanding each other's work ethics and methods. Neither group can even begin to grasp how the Gen Z'ers will fit into their ideals.

Perhaps it’s time for us to move beyond complaining, “If only they would…” Instead, maybe we need to change our whole perspective on the situation.

Life changes at a break-neck speed these days. There’s every reason to believe each new cohort will be significantly different from the last as they experience different challenges in society. Maybe we need to stop thinking in terms of age and start thinking in terms of culture.

What makes one culture different from another? While we have previously defined cultures based largely on geography and ethnicity, sociologists argue that now each generation is being raised and developed in a culture significantly different than other generations, even within the same geographic & ethnic culture. Dr. Paul White, author of The 5 Languages, suggests that in order to assist individuals from different generational cultures to work together better and with less conflict, we need to help them take a cross-cultural perspective in understanding one another.

People from different cultural backgrounds have lived life in distinctive contexts and with divergent experiences. If you have ever traveled to a different country (or even watched a documentary), you have experienced how different someone else’s culture can be from your own and the impact one’s culture has on their daily life. If we look at our generational differences as cultural differences, it becomes easier to start to identify what to focus on in order to improve the communication and motivation gap.

Key factors that culture is based on include:

  • What they value

  • What they choose to spend money on

  • How they dress

  • Communication styles (what is viewed as acceptable)

  • Different traditions

  • Decision-making processes and communication

If we stop waiting for the other group to change to what each group feels is the “better” way and start adapting to each other from the perspective of cultural differences, we might find improved conditions in working together.

Dr. White suggests a few starting points:

1. Acknowledge that differences exist.

2. Seek to understand, rather than criticize or defend your way of doing tasks.

3. Be gracious. Accept that you may not understand another’s viewpoint. As you learn more about their “culture,” your understanding will increase, even if you still prefer to perform tasks your culture’s way.

4. Withhold judgment. Your way may be the best way in your culture, but their way may incorporate other aspects of their culture that are important to them.

5. Seek to communicate through their worldview lens. Use their words and terms when discussing an experience or task. It’s not only respectful, but by doing so, you will probably gain further clarification from them.

6. Don’t assume that a lack of knowledge is the same as stupidity or laziness. With different life experiences, we learn a variety of skill sets and information. If someone doesn’t know something that’s second nature to you, it simply means they haven’t learned the information or skill yet.

All of us are experiencing challenges in learning how to work together as a result of the multi-generational workforce which has emerged and in many cases, this appears to be a byproduct of the cultural differences which have shaped the worldview of different generations. This applies not only to the workforce, but into our personal lives as well. When we value and embrace our differences instead of hoping the “other” group will change and do things our way, we create the opportunity to grow and succeed.

It’s time to start accepting and adapting. If we start now, we might absorb the Gen Z’ers into our work and personal lives a little more successfully, increasing everyone's quality of life.

Have a mindful weekend,


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