5.2 The influence of generational traits on communication
In HEIs it’s common to see employees of multiple generations working side-by-side. While our character traits and work habits are shaped by our personalities, not by our age, there are historical and social influences that have affected each generation. Understanding these influences can help to improve intergenerational communication and inclusion and avoid making assumptions based on stereotypes.
Depending on who you ask there are currently four or five generations represented in the workplace, commonly defined as follows:
- Traditionalists (sometimes called the Silent Generation) – born between 1928 and 1945.
- Baby boomers – born between 1946 and 1964.
- Generation X – born between 1965 and 1980.
- Generation Y (also known as Millennials) – born between 1981 and 1996.
- Generation Z – born between 1997 and 2012.
Each generation comes with its own set of assumed characteristics based on the environment in which its members were raised, e.g. post-war, during financial crisis, etc.
The amount of technological development that has happened between the birth of the first traditionalists and Gen Z was so vast that it has created two entirely different life experiences. When Baby Boomers first got a job, a computer at each desk wasn’t commonplace, whereas Millennials and Gen Z have never known a world without one.
Let’s briefly look at some of the key work-related stereotypical differences that have been identified for each group. These are generalisations, and do not automatically apply to everyone in a particular age group, and you may disagree with them, based on your own experience and approach.
Traditionalists are known for their strong work ethic, they appreciate job security and are more accustomed to formal attitudes in work environments rather than relaxed, flexible work environments.
Baby boomers enjoy face-to-face communication and printed information. They are loyal to their job and treat it as a priority in their life, focusing on career progression. They are willing to take risks at work to achieve success. They expect respect for their job title. Many of them are now at traditional retirement age, and the pandemic is thought to have accelerated retirement rates.
Gen X shook up the traditional workplace with their independence and entrepreneurial spirit – they are the ‘start-up’ generation, valuing autonomy and innovation. They want respect for their ideas and are focused on results. They are also credited with introducing the concept of work–life balance and they lean towards ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’. They tend to communicate at work via email or instant messaging, and favour soft copy documents over hard copy.
Millennials are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. They are focused on skills, especially creativity, and they value meaningful work in a relaxed environment. They expect their employers to have proactive and positive attitudes to sustainability, equity, diversity and inclusion. They are comfortable using technology to acquire just-in-time knowledge. They prioritise friendship and involvement.
A commonly discussed characteristic of ‘millennials’ is their desire for more feedback than previous generations. This can be very positive, but does require a different approach to communication from other generations.
As the newest generation to the workforce, the workplace characteristics of Generation Z are less well researched and defined than the other groups. However, one thing is certain, they have only ever known a digital world. The COVID-19 pandemic came at a critical developmental stage for Gen Z – normally this would have been the time when they would be making new connections and transitioning into adult life, but that was dramatically affected by lockdowns and other restrictions. They are disproportionately employed in industries such as hospitality and retail so many of them lost their jobs during the pandemic. They value authenticity, transparency, innovation and personal growth.
What this means for your communication approach
Generational characteristics can lead to various challenges in the workplace. Adapting your communication style and content to the needs of your audience is an important consideration in this context.
In the video below, contributors share their insights to working across generations and how you can build more inclusive workplaces.