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How to Communicate Across Generations at Work

communication leadership workplace
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 and communication during the pandemic 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 leaders in 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. We lived like animals. ;-)

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

No matter where you are in these age groups, these insights should help you to communicate and lead people more effectively across the generations in your workplace.

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

Just visit my contact page to share with me.



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