Bridging generation gaps

Communicate and listen to reduce clashes among Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y

Bridging generation gaps

STOP work for a moment and take a bird's eye view of your workplace.

If you are employed by a big enough organisation, you will notice at least three groups of people cheek-by-jowl at work - or at odds. They are the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.

No matter how hard the organisation tries to unite everyone, the divide between the generations yawns wide. The challenge is to overcome these chasms and rally the team together.

Currently, senior management positions in most companies are probably filled by the post-World War II Baby Boomer generation. They are proud of their strong work ethic and personal sacrifices, and believe changing jobs would set their careers back as they would have to climb a new corporate ladder. They like to be rewarded for long hours with seniority titles and big personal offices.

With Singapore's retirement age being raised from the current 62 to 65 in January 2012 - and possibly up to 68 later on - the Baby Boomers are set to stay in the workforce for a while yet. The last of the generation may be around for another five to 10 years.

Climbing up the ladder behind them are the Gen X-ers, generally defined as being born two decades later, or after 1965. They tend to value a better work-life balance, challenge traditions and believe that changing jobs increases their value in the employment market. They prefer flexible work schedules, and want to be rewarded with greater independence and training opportunities.

Already, you can imagine the misunderstandings that would arise between the two. The Baby Boomers think Gen X-ers are not as dedicated because they do not work 12-hour days every day, and cannot be relied on to carry out five-year plans because of their tendency to seek better career opportunities elsewhere.

Well then, enter Gen Y.

Born in the 1980s, they are the technology-savvy kids, the ones who change jobs frequently in search of fun, the ones who often do what they are told and nothing more. They expect job flexibility to suit their lifestyles, and want quick recognition and a say in decision-making.

If the Baby Boomers think poorly of Gen X, you can imagine how downright baffled they are by Gen Y.

Gen Y-ers have been known to show up at work interviews in T-shirts which show off their individuality, instead of suiting-up to give off a corporate look.

I remember an instance when a Gen Y staff started work decked out in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit. By lunchtime, a couple of Baby Boomers had told me I should send 'the Harajuku girl' home to change at once.

Having observed her, I knew she was timid and had probably never received a word of work advice in her young life. Had I sent her packing on her first day, she probably would not have come back. All she needed was a quiet word about the basic office dress code, and she dressed appropriately thereafter.

The thing is: More such instances are bound to crop up at workplaces. Although the Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers make up the majority of staff in most offices, we live in an increasingly Gen Y world. How then, as managers, can we reconcile such generational differences?

The first thing almost all human resource consultants would say is: Communicate, communicate, communicate. The last thing anyone wants is to work in a silo, no matter what generation he is from. We all want to know what is going on, where the company is moving and why things are happening.

The follow-up to that is to listen. Nobody likes to be ignored and, therefore, consultants say listening to the bellyaches of the younger folk, though sometimes frustrating, is a must.

But going beyond that, career coaches are increasingly emphasising that this communicate-and-listen process should be done on a one-on-one basis - not just by giving feedback in mass mails.

This is especially the case with Gen Y individuals, who tend to have been brought up in small family structures which have rewarded children from a young age with high praise, the latest toys and state-of-the-art technology.

The career coaches point out that Gen Y psychology is very different to that of Baby Boomers, who grew up in much larger families and were used to getting in line for any recognition and inherited hand-me-downs as rewards.

Whereas earlier generations were obedient workforces that took leadership directions silently, younger staff these days appreciate specialised attention and face time. When managers take the time to meet their subordinates away from the prying hordes to see how they are doing and what they are thinking, they feel special. And, let us be honest, who does not want to feel special?

Sure, management would argue that it really is up to the employees to manage their careers and ask for face time if they need it, but that just is not the way younger workers think anymore. Increasingly, managers have to - on top of their own work - be career coaches.

They have to seek out their underlings, maybe every month or so, to provide feedback on how they are doing and suggestions on how they can improve their performance - one-on-one, not en masse. Younger workers may need more frequent sessions; as frequent as half an hour a week, or 10 minutes a day.

The younger the worker, they say, the more feedback they might need - not necessarily in a mollycoddling manner, but definitely with recognition for good work. If the message is to buck up, career coaches advise supervisors to give it a positive spin, such as ending with suggestions for improvement and saying 'you can do it'.

In fact, it might be a good idea to identify mentors among the more senior staff for juniors to turn to.

All this individualised career coaching may sound like extra work, but when management is approachable and communicative, consultants promise the results will be noticeable.

At the end of the day, the general idea is to break down those generational misunderstandings or 'clash points' by creating more trust and engagement between the generations. Couple that with more traditional team bonding methods like an office party, and all-round office cheer might pick up.

It is Christmas, after all.

Read: Privacy Policy , Terms & Conditions

Back to Career Resources »

Related Articles

    Too soon to say whether labour market has turned around: Analysts

Too soon to say whether labour market has turned around: Analysts

Official data released by the Ministry of Manpower showed that the unemployment rate for Singaporeans was 3.2 per cent in September.

    Transforming and keeping the business in the family

Transforming and keeping the business in the family

The Iyers are giving the Big Four accounting firms a run for their money

    Focus on your goals

Focus on your goals

Develop a strategy to achieve your targets and progress in your career

    Unleash your creative potential

Unleash your creative potential

Four thinking techniques can help you come up with novel ideas

    Create your A-list

Create your A-list

Embrace the qualities that will boost your customers’ loyalty

    Go online to market your business

Go online to market your business

Any business looking to optimise its marketing strategy should consider online marketing