While generational rivalry in America is nothing new, it may seem a bit more widespread and aggressive these days thanks to the internet.
Popular online question and answer platform Quora has a trove of leading questions that highlight just how much animosity, stereotyping, and arguing takes place between, and among, the generations:
There are countless iterations of the timeless question, “What is wrong the new generation?”
There are plenty of responses, from all sides, to, “Do millennials feel more entitled than previous generations?”
Millennials, ever the subject of scorn from their elders, are more than willing to fire back, posing queries like, “Did the baby boomers sell out America?” and even the shockingly blunt, “Will the US only get better after the baby boomers die off?”
While such conversations are unlikely to occur in the workplace — or at least, not in such frank language — the tensions, assumptions, and antagonism that often underlies such lines of questioning undoubtedly do exist at work. The multigenerational workforce, and workplace, is an important feature of modern companies. Depending on how you go about managing it, multigenerational teams can be an asset or an HR nightmare.
When the Generations at Work Become Tribes
In larger offices, employees can self-organize into cohorts of similar age. While that isn’t a negative in and of itself, it can reinforce some amount of intergenerational rivalry, generalizations, and even antagonism and resentment. Obviously there is no real winning when this happens.
The kind of stereotyping and generalizations that characterize discussions about generations are harmful in a similar way to those made about races or genders. They may be founded on some kernel of truth — often some tidbit drawn from a bell curve — but get overextended and misrepresented to the point of outright falsehood. For example, the world’s strongest man may well be recorded as bench-pressing slightly more than the world’s strongest woman, but that is a far cry from the assertion that men are stronger than women. So it goes with the generations.
Generalizations across generations are meaningless; anything that relies on a bell curve tends to be misleading, because there are always outliers. The hallmark complaint levelled against millennials — that they can’t be pulled away from their phones, even when their attention is needed elsewhere — proves to be universal: insurers found that senior citizens are even more likely to be distracted drivers than any other age group. But you can’t overcome stereotypes and office cliques with mathematics or graphs.
Changing Labels Into Assets
Trying to eliminate self-alignment in the workplace is a lost cause. People will always look for ways to segregate according to some form of identity. The more important thing is to use this impulse to your company’s advantage, before you let it organically hurt office morale and unity.
Your recruitment game should be sensitive to the fact that, age notwithstanding, different people will gravitate toward different functions, and away from different challenges. That is a good thing — if you use that self-selection to facilitate communication between these disparate teams. For instance, the user experience (or “UX”) on your company website is assuredly a design challenge, one likely to be tackled by tech-savvy graphic artists, programmers, and web developers. But it is also a direct expression of company and brand identity, something liable to impact customer relations, sales, marketing — even your legal department could be implicated by poor online UX. What seems like a discrete project actually impacts any number of diverse and distinct departments across your entire company.
This boils down to some familiar old bits of wisdom: we have more in common than might be apparent on the surface. The actions of the few affect the wellbeing of the many. Whether or not you understand each other’s roles or contributions, you need them. Value comes in many forms.
The important element isn’t getting everyone on the same skill level, necessarily, but fostering the communication and rapport between them so that when, say, an older employee gets frustrated with the company computers, there isn’t an immediate tension when they turn to someone younger to ask for help. Reconciling the skills each person or group brings to the company creates positive associations, ones that are more likely to be reinforced by meaningful interactions rather than stereotypes. If certain skill sets or value contributions correlate along age lines or generational borders, who really cares? Better to have stereotypes associated with productivity and collaboration than disapproval, resentment, or unhealthy competition.
Generational rivalry and misunderstandings are inevitable in society, but they don’t have to plague your workplace. Do what you can to shift focus away from negative associations, passive stereotypes, and secular work teams. Create opportunities for collaboration, for breaking down silos and fostering communication. When your teams see the value their peers add, it breaks down departmental silos as well as generational gaps with a focus on shared successes and mutual goals. Stop your teams from questioning the merits, ethics, or habits of each other based on age, and get them to see each other as solutions to mutual challenges.
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