Don’t Make assumptions about generations

We all know the stereotypes by heart. The Gen Z “snowflakes” who grew up expecting participation trophies. The Boomers who have one foot out the door and think they know everything (except how to deal with new technology; they call in their grandkids for that.)

By 2025, Millennials are projected to account for 75 percent of the workforce. But they are individuals first, each with unique experiences and preferences. They have in common that they expect a customized user experience from the systems they interact with. The one thing they all agree on is that one size doesn’t fit all.

We tend to make sweeping generalizations about the age that would never be allowed (or considered) about any other demographic characteristic. That’s a challenge for managers and HR professionals as they strive to create a fair and meaningful workplace for multiple generations.

Amine Issa, Jr., GPHR, PHR, Sr. Director, Business and Customer Operations at HRCI, writes, “In general, aim for transparency and clarity. If you ask employees to provide “advance notice” before taking a vacation, how will they know what that means without a specific explanation? It’s not fair to assume that anyone of any age will ‘just know.’” Boomers and Generation Z employees will have very different definitions and expectations around issues like what constitutes “early,” “late,” “in advance, and “right away.”

Issa says making assumptions about what people want and need based on their generation can backfire. Instead, he suggests, use surveys and polls to determine what they want. “For instance, there are stereotypes that younger workers prefer remote work while older workers prefer in-person work environments. But Millennial and Gen Z employees might prefer in-person work (particularly after the pandemic’s enforced isolation), and Baby Boomer and Gen X employees may embrace the freedom afforded by remote work. “

If you’re basing your communication style on stereotypes, you might be missing out on meaningful conversations. Young people might communicate with each other via text, but they often crave face-to-face conversations with supervisors and mentors. A manager needs to ask each employee how often and by what means they prefer to hear from you.

Another age-related stereotype is that mentoring can only flow one way: from older to younger workers. You can create a more prosperous environment for workers of all ages when you assume that generations each have something to teach the other. Again, using surveys and polls to identify skills and experience among your workforce might provide some surprising insights on who might be able to benefit from being paired up on training projects or cross-functional teams.

If you assign sponsors or mentors, don’t simply make matches based on age or assign the older workers to take the lead in mentoring. Set expectations that both younger and older workers will be able to share equally and learn from one another.

Lastly, Issa recommends that you assign multigenerational teams to look at processes and problems that need to be addressed. The differences in experience and approach can make a team much more effective. Don’t assume that the more senior workers are happy with the status quo or resistant to change. “Processes that are still in place because “that’s how it’s always been done” are prime candidates for multigenerational teams to update,” he writes.

Seeing your staff as individuals rather than categorizing them by age will make your connection and communication with them more meaningful. Age, after all, really is just a number. Over 175 years ago, author Charles Dickens said, “We count by changes and events within us. Not by years.”


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