Generational Differences and Mutual Respect

I hadn’t noticed that a huge generational shift had taken place until I was in my early 50s and interviewing for a new job. Because of the background I could bring to positions that interested me and because I had strong interview skills, I always assumed that I had a good shot at most jobs for which I was appropriately qualified. But then everything changed. When I applied for a full-time teaching position in communication, younger people on interview panels weren’t all that interested in hiring me. It wasn’t until I met with an interview panel in a rural area comprised of people my own age, did I get the position I wanted. For the first time in my working life, I realized that my generation was no longer in charge. ‘We’ were not at the center of organizational life or the drivers of innovation. I had to get up to speed on newer technologies, learn different ways of doing things, and understand how a new generation communicated. I also had to keep my mouth shut at times when ‘new’ organizational culture initiatives were introduced—ones that I’d seen in years past that had resurfaced again.

Different Communication Channels

As a baby boomer and as a communication professional, I expected more face-to-face communication when issues that needed to be discussed were ambiguous or sensitive. At first, I had to adjust to the amount and type of information communicated through email. Later, I needed to adjust to people sitting in meetings while texting or watching their phones as others were talking or presenting information. I had a lot to learn about intergenerational communication in the workplace and beyond. As a former educational researcher, I loved reading studies, reports, and other literature about areas that interested me. After a couple of years in my new position, I started reading everything I could find about generational differences.  I shared what I was learning with students, other businesses, and our community. I believed it was important to recognize some of our differences so we could work together for common good.

Generational Stereotyping

What I didn’t realize at the time was that generational differences that we do recognize often lead to stereotyping. As I continued to get older, I became more aware that more people saw me as old and out of touch rather than the curious, engaged person that I believed I was. It wasn’t until I was in my early sixties that I became familiar with and had experienced first hand what we know as ageism—stereotyping and discrimination based on age. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become acutely aware of ageist attitudes towards older individuals—both in the workplace and in the community. However, I hadn’t thought much about how stereotypes cut both ways. One of the descriptors I often hear about millennials is they are “too idealistic.”  Hmmm, I think I remember a time when baby boomers were thought of as idealistic as well. Viewing each other through stereotypical lenses creates communication barriers that can prevent us from effectively collaborating together. We may be part of a different generation, but we have far more in common than we may realize.

We are Different but We are all the Same

Years ago, some of my students in an interpersonal communication class made me a wall hanging with their handprints on fabric. Some hand prints were green, others were red, orange, blue, black, or brown. Every handprint had its own unique shape and varied in size. My students wrote their names underneath their individual handprints. The caption at the top of the hanging read, “We are all different but we are all the same.” Ultimately, we are all different but the same. We are unique individuals who share far more in common than not. Today, we also share some common problems that will demand that we all work together and find solutions to issues like climate change, healthcare, gun violence, and so many other issues. These aren’t just the problems of one generation—these are problems that affect all of us.

Intergenerational Problem-Solving Starts with a Small Step

Our ability to work across generations for common good starts with a simple step. We must see each other as unique individuals who are worthy of respect. In order to do this, we have to listen to each other, talk about our assumptions, and discover how each of us has something of value to offer in the workplace, in our communities, and beyond.

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