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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Generations at Work: How to Adapt Your Communication Style

It’s the number one most common issue we hear as humorous motivational speakers.  Regardless of the profession or industry—whether it’s financial, insurance, healthcare, technology, sales, or human resources—everyone is asking the same question:

“How do we get all the different generations who work together to communicate and get along?”

It goes without saying that the world has changed.  We live in a multi-generational culture.  Even just 20 years ago, the workplace was completely unlike the way it is today: younger people were the workers, older people were the bosses, everyone did their routine, and then it was “Miller Time.”

Now, that is no longer the case.

In the second decade of a new century and a new millennium, a 26-year-old female can be a supervisor of a 63-year-old male employee.

This is the 21st century workplace.  We have the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Xers, and Yers.  It’s gotten so confusing, it’s hard to tell if you’re referring to an age group or genetic chromosomes. 

Here are a few tips you can embrace right away to communicate effectively with the “other” generation:

1.  The “Silent” Generation (1925-1945)

This the generation that was too young to serve in World War II, but were born before Baby Boomers. 

Characteristics:  The Silent Generation grew up with a very strong sense of tradition.  Children of “The Greatest Generation” (those who did serve in WWII), the Silent Generation was raised with the expectation of preserving their culture and heritage.  They also grew up in a time when scarcity and uncertainty were the norm, so they also learned the value of loyalty.

Communication style:  Since the Silent Generation was brought up by parents who demanded respect, they also share the same feeling of importance regarding loyalty and tradition. So when talking to someone from this generation, treat them with respect. 

Respect can be displayed in simple ways…hold a door open, let them go first, say “sir” and “ma’am.”  The main thing is to communicate that you respect them for their wisdom, knowledge, and experience.  This generation paved the way for the rest of us.  If anybody deserves respect, it’s them.

2.  Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

After World War II ended, everybody came home and said, “You know what?  We need more people.”

So, everybody got to work…and all of a sudden, there was a population explosion.  Classrooms were suddenly crowded and households had more siblings.

Characteristics:  As a result of this overpopulation, Baby Boomers had to compete for everything—their parents’ attention, grades in school, getting into college, and getting jobs.  So Baby Boomers are competitive, both by nature and nurture.

This was also the age group that first introduced the idea of not respecting authority, likely as a reaction to growing up with the previous generation that commanded respect.  They were the first generation of “youth.”  Their motto was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”  Now, appropriately, their motto is “Don’t trust anyone over 95.”

Communication style:  As Boomers are very competitive, when talking to a Boomer, make sure that they know you think they are the center of the universe.  In other words, make it about THEM.

For example, you wouldn’t say, “This is what we need to do to complete the project.”  Instead, make them king of the hill.  “This is what we can do to make you GREAT!”  And do it with as much gusto and cheerleading enthusiasm as possible.

3.  Generation X (1965-1980)

Probably the most overlooked of all the generations (at least according to them), this group started out being called “Latch Key Kids,” in reference to the sudden change in family dynamics in the 70s and 80s.  The traditional model that “Dad is the breadwinner and Mom stays home” began to dissolve.  Mom wanted a career also, or had to get one out of necessity.  Either way, for most families, Mom and Dad were both at work.   

Characteristics:  As a result of this new family dynamic, these kids were suddenly thrown into adult-like independence.  They had to be self-sufficient; there was no other option.  They had to take care of themselves and quickly learn to be self-reliant.

Communication style:  Since this age group grew up being used to relying on themselves, it’s foreign to them to have someone looking over their shoulder or checking on them—they see that as trying to infringe upon their territory.  They also resolved that when they were adults (as if they hadn’t been already) that they would be a presence in the lives of their own children.

So when talking to an Xer, “personal time” is key.  They rarely want to do more than they have to.  They also want to know that you value their personal time, and that they have the freedom to call their own shots—e.g., they want the flexibility to design their own schedule. This may mean they split up their workday in two parts, so they can leave work in the middle of the afternoon to go pick up Madison and Parker from Tae Kwan Do and finish work later that night while the kids are in bed (and they’ve changed into their goth clothing while listening to Depeche Mode and The Smiths…not that anyone cares).

4.  Generation Y (1981-2000)

Often children of Boomers, this age group is once again trying to be defined by society—e.g., they are also sometimes referred to as “Millennials,” though it is still unclear if that term refers to the next generation born after 2000.

Characteristics:  This is the age group that grew up with technology all around them.  The devices that we hold in our hands today have always existed for them, whereas for the rest of us, we can identify the sections of our lives where they didn’t exist, and then suddenly did.

Looking at video games as an example, Generation Y has always grown up with them; there was never a time when they didn’t exist in their lives.  As the technology continued to evolve, they saw high definition graphics, multi-dimension levels, game controllers with 13 buttons instead of 2, and various “sequels” of games partitioned into multi-disc formats.  They didn’t play “Pong,” where it was just a line and dot on a black & white TV, with the VHF channel knob broken off, resulting in the family dynamic of having to change channels with a pair of pliers. 

Communication style:  Since they are very technology-centric, their methods are just as visible: technology before talk.  People often say, “You can’t talk to the younger generation!”  That isn’t so.  You can have a conversation with someone who is younger; just “text” or “Facebook” them first (remember that “Facebook” is now a noun AND a verb) to let them know you want to talk to them.

Additionally, since they have the advantage of technology on their side, they are always communicating with each other.  It might be through some means of a platform, such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, text messaging, or social media.  But they are always talking to each other somehow. 

So this is a group that is very social.  As such, they are very friendly and personable.  Pay attention next time you meet someone from this age group: they are delightful people, and very nice.  And if you are nice to them, that goes a long way.  They respond well to friendliness and sociability (“Facebook” them!).

To sum up the communication styles of each of these generations:

The “Silent” Generation = Have a meeting.
Baby Boomers = Make a phone call.
Generation X = Send an email.
Generation Y = Send a text message.

So there you have it. The key to cross-generational communication is to adapt your communication style and respect what each generation brings to the table.


Motivational speakers Tim and Kris O'Shea help organizations deal with change through relevant business humor. To learn more about these funny motivational speakers visit http://www.theosheareport.com/ or call 303-371-2849. Copyright © 2014 Tim and Kris O'Shea.