Bridging the generational divide at work


A generational workplace skirmish erupted on LinkedIn back in March, with Millennials and older workers lobbing insults of varying levels of wit and vitriol at each other. While my transparent bid to leverage this battle for page views met with some success, my efforts to broker a peace were for naught!

For example, I concluded my post with a sincere call for dialogue:

I’d love to hear some constructive comments from readers about how we can bridge the generational divide at work and make ourselves and our enterprises more productive and successful.

The response? A single comment, and this from a guy looking for a baldness cure. (OK, for “a friend.”) We’ve got to do better, people!

I was thinking of suggesting some cross-generational team-building exercises like the “trust fall.” The problem there is that Boomer bones are brittle and their muscles atrophied, so Millennials likely would be at high risk of being concussed. Conversely, Boomers would be imperiled because some Millennials, rather than focusing on the task at hand, may instead be in the process of creating dank memes to post on Instagram.

Maybe this is a job for the experts. Fortunately, Harvard Business Review has an advice podcast that addresses all kinds of vexing workplace challenges. In this episode, co-hosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn chat with Jennifer Deal, a specialist on generational issues at the Center for Creative Leadership and co-author of What Millennials Want from Work.

The podcast is 35:35 long and well worth a listen. If you’d rather read a transcript, here’s a link. Also, I’ve excerpted a few passages below:

The role of technology in conflict

DAN MCGINN: Jennifer, in your experience is technology one of those dimensions in which these generational conflicts often pop up?

JENNIFER DEAL: Yes, it is. And what I’ve actually noticed is in these kinds of conflicts, part of what’s going on is sort of a battle about clout. Who has it and who wants it?  And younger people when they come into the workforce, when they don’t have a lot of experience they use what they have to gain clout with the people they’re working with. And what they have are innovative ideas, new ways of doing things, tech savvy with the newest technology, so they use those things to increase their clout. Older people tend to use the things they have which is greater experience, longevity in the workplace. And experience specifically with how things have been done and actually gotten things done.

It’s not always about age

DAN MCGINN: Does this happen a lot that person A is underperforming and it may or may not have anything to do with the person’s age, but people believe that the age is the culprit here?

JENNIFER DEAL: All the time. It happens all the time. This younger person isn’t performing well because they’re a Millennial. This older person isn’t performing well because they’re older and they’re stuck in their ways and they don’t want to change. Absolutely it’s a common attribution. And it generally isn’t an accurate one. There are more differences within a generation than there are between generations. And people, some people perform well in a generation and some people don’t. Attributing it to generation is easy because you can see what age people are. But it isn’t generally, the best answer.

Don’t judge a book by its wrinkles

ALISON BEARD: I actually looked at some research on older workers and sort of perceptions versus reality and again and again, in a book that Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott have written called The Hundred Year Life, they note that the older workers are surprisingly willing to invest in new skills. There are some other research showing that older workers are less resistant to change than we assume.

Bottom line: Assumptions and prejudices can poison a workplace. And while it’s damned hard to get past those — we’re all tribalistic to one extent or another — it’s imperative to an enterprise’s culture and productivity that we recognize each other’s unique assets and focus on common goals.

Cue inspirational music. (But not EDM!)


  1. James O'Sullivan says:

    I would have thought there would have been more inquiries about the baldness cure.

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