Embracing Generation Gaps in Business & Volunteering

Generations Working Together

In the 1960s, Americans invented the phrase "Generation Gap" to define the discrepancies in values and viewpoints among generations. This phrase originated from the counterculture, a time when political and social turmoil captured the attention of Baby Boomers. This group of generational revolutionaries varied from the conservative Traditionalists before them, and even more so from the Generation Xers and the Millennials proceeding them.

Sociologists later extensively studied these differences in attitudes, renaming the Generation Gap as "institutional age segregation." Generation gaps are often observed in the workplace: Millennials may find a Traditionalist preference for face-to-face communication boring, and a Generation Xer may find the Baby Boomer's commitment to work disturbing! In this post, acknowledging that no description perfectly describes any generation of workers, we attempt to uncover some nuanced differences arising from Generation Gaps in the workplace, and how companies can cultivate harmony and passion despite age differences.

Generations Timeline

  • Traditionalists (1922 - 1945):

    Traditionalists grew up during the Great Depression. Due to crippling economic circumstances, many grew up with a dedication to work that persists even to this day. Many Traditionalists are accustomed to working separately and methodically, often preferring clear patterns of work. Traditionalists also tend to prefer clearly defined hierarchical structures.

    They have a strong predilection for formal communication in the form of written letters and face-to-face interaction.

  • Baby Boomers (1946 - 1964):

    The Baby Boomers today constitute the largest percentage of America's workforce. This generation enjoyed relatively healthy economic times and carry optimistic expectations for their children and grandchildren. A Volunteer Power article by Thomas W. McKee delves into the opportunities and joys of this generation of workers. Mr. McKee provides insight into surprising facts, such as the fact that over 7% of Peace Corps volunteers are over 50 years old.

    This generation prefers informal, face-to-face meetings.

  • Generation Xers (1965 - 1980):

    Political, economic, and social turmoil greatly influenced this generation. Generation Xers are recognized for being wary of authority and willing to question leadership. They are open to new methods of problem solving and envision an array of solutions for today's problems.

    They prefer an array of communication styles, formal and informal, and possess adept e-technology skills.

  • Millennials (1981 - 2000):

    Society immerses this generation in the "new" -- new media, new technology, new ways of expression. An excerpt in the novel Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation by Neil Howe and William Strauss delves into the naming of this generation:

    "Several thousand people sent suggestions to abcnews.com. Some thought that gen.com would be a good idea. Others said Generation Y (Why), Generation Whatever, Gen-D was the one. The Boomlets. The Prozac Generation. When everyone got talking about it online, the second-number thought there should be no label at all, and the greatest interest was in the Millennium Generation, or the Millennials."

    This sentiment captures the experiences of this fast-paced and creative generation. Many Millennials grew up in financially-favorable circumstances and were encouraged to embrace teamwork from a very young age. But because of this generation's weakness towards instant gratification, many may experience impatience with their work and require positive, frequent feedback from employers. This generation does exceptionally well with online communication.

Again, we concede that none of the aforementioned generalizations will perfectly apply to every person, but there appear to be some distinct differences across generations. By joining members of different age groups and cultural upbringings, companies can potentially benefit from diverse insights, working styles, and opinions. Trent Beekman from Accounting Principles and Ryan Scott from Forbes explain how to encourage all volunteers and employees to work together harmoniously regardless of age. A synthesis of these strategies, and additional strategies, follows:

  • Celebrate Differences: One of the best ways to unite workers of all walks of life is to celebrate the different and unique experiences they have to offer. Instead of sweeping generational differences under the rug, companies can celebrate differences by acknowledging and making the most of these differences. Workers of all ages can learn a lot from each other, learning from the wisdom of a newer or older generation.
  • Show Everyone Respect: Regardless of age, all workers and volunteers want respect. By communicating that age discrimination is unheard of in a certain corporation's vocabulary, the company effectively demonstrates that all volunteers and employees should treat each other respectfully. Furthermore, acts of respect acknowledging generational events, such as a worker's wedding or a worker's graduation from a dedicated graduate degree path, are an immersive way for a company to celebrate employees with respect to their ages.
  • Find Joy in Shared Work: The workforce body of a nonprofit or a company should all be committed to the organization's mission. Even if there are age gaps, volunteers will find camaraderie in shared objectives and common goals.

Working with, rather than working against, generation gaps can benefit business and promote corporate social responsibility, in uniting people together for common good, which can also increase work-place satisfaction.