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How to Communicate Across Generations at Work

communication leadership
Woman at a standing desk is texting an example of generational communication


By John Millen

A few years ago, I had two days of consecutive communication workshops with sales leaders at a Fortune 100 company.

The first day was with baby boomer-aged leaders. The second day was with leaders in the millennial and Gen X ages.

During one open question-and-answer period one of the boomers described his frustration with his younger leader. “I call him and he doesn’t answer his phone. Then he texts me and says, ‘what do you want’?”

This boomer then smiled and shouted, “What do you mean, what do I want?! I want to TALK to you!”

Generational differences in the workplace

This exchange typifies the generational differences in our workplace today, and remote and hybrid work have only sharpened the contrast.

In fact, it’s historic.

For the first time in history, we have five generations in the workplace:

  • Traditionalists — born 1925 to 1945
  • Baby Boomers — born 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X — born 1965 to 1980
  • Millennials — born 1981 to 2000
  • Generation Z — born 2001 to 2020

This certainly poses challenges for each of these generations.

Below I’ve included an infographic based on the research of Dr. Bea Bourne, DM, a faculty member in the School of Business and Information Technology at Purdue University Global. 

Dr. Bourne is an expert on generational differences and response to organizational change. (The years defining generations above are hers and vary in other research.)

This infographic gives fascinating insights into each generation’s values, defining events, motivations and worldview. You can find the original infographic here, as well as links to the other research cited.

The other historic element, which I talk about in my keynotes, is that this is the first time in history that generations have preferred different styles and methods of communication.

In the past, everyone communicated, for the most part, in the same way: face-to-face, phone or the written word. Old school. ;-)

Preferred modes of communication

Today, as you know, some of the generations have completely different modes of preference from the classics to email to text to images. Apps on desktops and phones further widen the divide of generations.

In the graphic below, Dr. Bourne outlines these communication style differences. 

Communication styles by generation

Traditionalist: Personal touch, handwritten notes instead of email

Baby Boomers: Whatever is most efficient, including phone calls and face-to-face

Generation X: Whatever is most efficient, including phone calls and face-to-face

Millennials: IMs, texts and email

Generation Z: IMs, texts and social media

Here are three quick tips to communicate more effectively across generations:

1. Drop your assumptions

These are generalizations so they don't apply to everyone.  Too many stereotypes have widened the gap. As with all communications, we must consider the needs of the specific person or group of people in front of us.

2. Adapt your message and your mode

It's always important to adapt your message to a specific audience, but this generational research compels us to adapt our mode of communications, as well.

In achieving results, your delivery medium may be as important as your message itself.

For example, if you're a GenZ asking for a raise, a text is probably not the answer, unless your manager is a couple of years older than you. LOL

3. Grow your understanding

In the end, the answer is for each of us to grow in our understanding of continually evolving communication preferences, styles and technology.

All of these will continue to change and successful communication will result from our personal understanding and growth.

No matter where you are in these age groups, insights from this research may help you to communicate and influence people more effectively across the generations in your workplace, and at home.

I’d love to hear your challenges, ideas and stories on bridging this communication divide in your workplace or family.

Please visit my contact page to share with me.



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