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As authors Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas report in their book, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, each generation within today’s workforce is defined and influenced differently. That can create discord. Older workers may feel ignored. Millennials are targeted (unjustly at times) as “the privileged generation.” And there are the GenXers and GenYers who are dealing with their own unique “9 to 5” challenges. Every demographic group faces its own workplace issues and career speed bumps – just as they all have the potential to make rich, valuable contributions. The challenge is ensuring that each generation is heard to ensure happy employees and squelch the spread of ageism.

“For the first time in history, there are five distinctly different generations working side by side – and they all have different ways of communicating.”

“For the first time in history, there are five distinctly different generations who are working side by side,” says JoAnne Marlow of Systems for Engaging Teams, a Vancouver-based firm that helps companies with multi-generational staff find creative ways to work together and “stop wasting money and losing talented people to the competition the minute they get trained.” Marlow, a respected career coach, workplace consultant author and teacher, spends much of her time working with companies whose staff includes all five demographic groups: the Silent Generation, also known as Traditionalists, who were born 1926-1945; Baby Boomers, born 1946 to 1965; Generation X, born 1966 to 1979; Millennials or Gen Y, born 1980 to 1997; and Generation Z, born 1998 and after.

One of the many issues Marlow addresses is ageism in companies across Canada.

Each generation has their own style of communication in the workplace. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, www.marqueerents.com

Age discrimination in the workplace

“Ageism is the last bastion of prejudice in the North American workforce,” says Barbara Jaworski, CEO of the Workplace Institute, a Canadian management consulting firm. “It’s rarely blatant – that’s illegal – but many employers send subtle but clear messages to older workers that they’re not wanted.”

Myths abound regarding older employees: Training older workers is a lost investment; they’re not as creative or innovative as young employees; and they’re less productive, less flexible, less adaptable. But the reality, according to global job site Monster.ca: “Older workers have life experience. They’re more apt to have accumulated business wisdom. They’re resilient, and tend to have accumulated excellent customer service and communication skills.” And surveys indicate they’re eager to continue learning.

So what’s feeding these myths and the all pervasive disconnect between multi-generational employees? “Poor communication,” says Marlow, “I visit workplaces where Baby Boomers and Millennials simply don’t understand each other. They don’t talk. They’ve no idea what life experiences have influenced the other group. Millennials are tired of waiting for the senior manager to retire so they can move up the career ladder.

Often they’re not aware that the senior manager, perhaps a Baby Boomer, can’t retire. The crash of 2008 quashed retirement plans of many older employees.” She also hears from Boomers who are afraid the young employee wants to steal their job. “But if you talk to the Millennial or Gen Xer, they’ll often tell you they don’t want that senior position. They just want to learn.”

Ageism makes older employees feel ignored and marginalized. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Penn State.

Marlow facilitates a 20-hour workshop for clients called Dialogue for the Decades. The three-day course is designed to help companies adapt to different communication styles especially when their staff includes employees whose ages range from 18 to 75. Marlow challenges every group: “How can you and your team learn from each other’s experiences and create trust, respect, and friendship? How can you resolve the challenges caused by miscommunication and inappropriate behavior?”

Marlow has produced a tool kit called, 7 Ways to Bridge the Workplace Generation Gap. Topping her list of recommendations? “Mind the gap,” advises Marlow. “It’s important to be aware of the dynamics and behaviors of each of the five generational groups – and that awareness comes through real communication. And, secondly, it’s vital to acknowledge that the workforce and workplace are changing. Technological and societal changes have impacted the workplace but those changes are perceived differently by the various age groups. Take work-life balance for instance. That’s a huge priority for younger employees, whereas may older employees may insist that work always comes first.”

Nice work if you can get it

“When multi-generational workplaces click, it’s a joy to see,” says Marlow. “I followed up with one company where I observed one-on-one informal mentoring taking place between Millennials and Boomers. I’ve seen young techies show Boomers how to use a new software. The Millennial has realized that the older worker doesn’t want the self-professed geek to do the work – only to show him or her how to do it.”

And the tech-savvy millennial? “He only wanted to be mentored on how to develop better relations with clients. He didn’t feel secure asking his older colleague.” And as she points out, the magic ingredients that lead to these win-win workplace situations aren’t new concepts: understanding, communication and mutual-respect. Age-old wisdom, indeed.

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Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”