What does it mean for leaders to have both newcomers and soon-to-be retirees on the team? Let’s have a look at this very interesting question together. Read on to gain insights into how to bridge the generation gap at work.

 

What’s the generation gap?

Why do generations matter at work? A valid question. The answer is pretty simple: Each generation has its very own characteristics and, thus, differs from other generations. Whether it’s the way of thinking, coping with digitization, or the work image. While older generations have only had to come to terms with computers, smartphones and the like at a later stage of their lives, younger generations already grew up in the digital world. Similarly, the understanding of work has changed from generation to generation, which is why younger people no longer focus on money, but rather on the purpose of their work and their tasks. Just stereotypes, you might think. And you’re right. However, even if these stereotypes may not apply to every single member of a generation, it still is important to be aware of certain characteristics of different generations. As leaders, we are used to working with individuals with different opinions—but are these really just opinions or are we talking about a generation gap here?

 

The clash of generations at work: an example

Let’s imagine the following situation: A company announces an imminent switch to “paperless office” practices. This means paper consumption will be reduced and as much work as possible will be handled digitally. 

For our employees Markus and Lisa, both in their mid-20s, this change triggers a positive feeling. The environmental aspect is important to them and makes the company a more attractive employer. After a short adaptation phase, the two of them have no problem working with the new digital tools. On the other hand, there are Anita and Robert, two older colleagues, who, despite becoming used to repeated changes to their workflows during their 32 years of service, feel very unsettled by the news. Until now, analog documentation has served as a great backup system for them, as they do not fully understand how data storage in the cloud or communication between systems works.  

The stereotypes described in this example are, well, stereotypes. Nonetheless, the reactions are very real and can be found in many companies. The example illustrates the generation gap and the different levels of acceptance—which do not stem from grouchiness or opposition, but are the result of a lack of technical understanding on behalf of an entire generation. 

 

The generation gap as a leadership challenge

As leaders, we have to recognize the needs of our employees and act accordingly. In companies or teams built of multiple generations, this task can prove to be challenging. In order to bridge the generation gap, it is vital to understand and solve the underlying problem. In our example given above, one option would be to talk to the older employees and develop a solution together with them that eliminates their uncertainties and supports them in the new work process. As a general rule, a mix of generations requires increased attention and sensitivity from any leader in order to keep the older, more experienced colleagues and, at the same time, be an attractive employer for younger people. 

 

4 tips to bridge the generation gap successfully

Let’s circle back to our original question: There’s no one-fits-all answer, as each situation must be considered individually. Nevertheless, we’ve got a few valuable tips for you:

  • Awareness: Which generations are part of my team/company and how are they different from each other?
  • Communication: Be transparent, share information, and get feedback from your team to be able to react to uncertainties as soon as they arise.
  • Appreciation: Show your employees how valuable they are to the team, regardless of whether they accept new things quickly or need longer to adapt. 
  • Support: Especially during times of change, help each team member by tackling their individual insecurities, and support them wherever needed.

 

In a nutshell: Always mind the gap. . . and you’ve already taken a vital first step in the right direction.