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Generational Differences in the Workplace: Views from an Aging Millennial

July 15, 2021

During a week filled with heavy news and hot weather, I turned 30.

As both an employment lawyer, and a member of the much beleaguered millennial generation, I’ve always been fascinated by generational differences, and how those play out in the workplace.

I have reached two main conclusions:

  1. Operating on assumptions or stereotypes relating to any age group is dangerous, and results in miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities.

  2. While there are certainly generational differences, they should be celebrated as opportunities to encourage innovation, diversity, and growth for both organizations and individuals.

“OK, Boomer”, “Millennial Snowflakes” and Other Generational Stereotypes

Generational challenges in the workplace are a common complaint raised by clients of all ages and across industries. Misunderstandings about other generations have existed for, well, generations, and will continue until we change our thinking to focus on what each “age group” in our organization can add to the mix. The root of complaints about other generations is often an assumption made by one side about what is motivating the other, which is grounded in generational stereotypes, not reality.

Take two examples:

Example 1: a middle-aged manager is frustrated with a young worker trying to negotiate more vacation time early in their career even when the younger worker has been offered an extremely competitive monetary compensation package.

Example 2: a twenty-something believes their boss is being superficial in their response to an issue of discrimination, and is thinking about criticizing their employer on social media for it. The employer is prepared to discipline the employee if they do so.

In each example, age-based stereotypes spring to mind immediately.

In the first example, the manager can dismiss the young worker as being a “lazy millennial”, who is unwilling to put in the effort or time to advance in the organization, in the same way they have.  

In the second, the employer may dismiss the worker as being an out-of-touch idealist, with no respect for their employer, while the employee sees their employer as being outdated, unresponsive and hypocritical.

But, what happens if we move the lens away from the age of the worker?

…Finding Common Ground

In the first example, the young worker places a higher value on time than money. From their perspective, a better vacation package is ‘worth more’ than a competitive bonus plan. The manager might be wise to recognize that what is being expressed is not laziness, but a different value proposition, that the manager can actually key into as a huge motivating tool. 

The manager might also recognize that this employee is likely willing to have reduced compensation in exchange for more time off and flexibility, which may, in fact, benefit the company, in that time off can be arranged at a time when the company is slower or in between projects.

In the second example, the worker has legitimate concerns about the employer’s response, which the employer should be open to hearing, provided they are shared in a respectful manner with them directly, and not on social media. The employer has historically never taken a public position on issues of discrimination, and was incredibly proud to do so for the first time.  

In both examples, chalking someone’s behaviour up to age-based stereotypes results in an inaccurate understanding of the situation, and reduces the likelihood of the situation being resolved, or even becoming fertile ground for mutually beneficial solutions to common workplace issues.

Shifting the Perspective: Intergenerational Wisdom; not Warfare

The challenges discussed above are easily overcome when the focus shifts to the individual and the specific issue, rather than age or generation.

In Example 1, the employer has an opportunity to gain insight into what is motivating their workforce, and the worker has the opportunity to share and live their values. In Example 2, the employer can benefit from the worker’s feedback, and the worker can learn to recognize some of the organizational restraints that may limit a progressive response in their industry.

A diverse workforce results in higher-quality and more innovative work, and a healthier working environment. Older workers bring experience and knowledge that no amount of enthusiasm or intellect can replace. Younger workers bring new ideas and tech-savvy, and the latest industry information.

It is worth bearing in mind that age-based discrimination is no more permitted in the workplace than any other type of discrimination; old or young, we should all think twice before disregarding a colleagues opinion based on their age.

As advisors to business over a wide variety of industries, we regularly provide solutions on generational and other workplace issues. In many cases, in addition to reducing legal risks, we can actually improve the workplace and employee retention.  Call us to discuss!