Gen X vs. Baby Boomers: Overcome the Barriers to Effective Communication

Gen x vs. baby boomers means war in some offices. Age presents one of the greatest barriers to effective communication in the workplace. It also presents one of the greatest opportunities. I facilitate all day intergenerational communication training that involves different generations interviewing each other. Some of the revelations might surprise you. 


Don’t call me old. Don’t call me kid.

Ask the one who knows

If you want to know how to communicate with people from a different culture, ask someone from that culture. If you want to know how to communicate with people who have disabilities, ask people who have disabilities. If you want to know how to communicate with someone in a different generation, ask someone in that generation. And when they answer, pay attention to what they meant to say, what slips out of their mouths, and how they say what they say. Gen X vs. baby boomers can seem to present insurmountable barriers to effective communication.  The benefit of intergenerational programs is that they can discover the value the other generation brings.

Intergenerational foreshadowing

I provide intergenerational communication training. I don’t talk much. I invite my groups to communicate from experience and we listen and observe. It’s one thing to hear how generations operate. It’s another to watch it in action.

I open the day by asking what the participants want. In a recent training session, a couple of younger members wanted to know how to get touchy-feely managers to get down to business. A couple of elder managers wanted to know how to listen better.

Can you guess where this is going?

Starting young and working up

We start dialogue with the youngest group. If I start with Boomers and work down, by the time Generation Y (the Millennials) take the floor, they are less forthright. They’ve had their behinds handed to them enough that they filter their words and adapt their style. The elder groups often broadcast the message, “we’re the authorities around here and we don’t want to be challenged.” Many Gen Y’s (Millennials) have heard that since they arrived in the workforce, and even the boldest among them tend to tone themselves down by the time it’s their turn to speak.

When I start with Millennials, they lay it on the line. They unapologetically and unequivocally detail their challenges breaking into the workforce. They speak of feeling unwelcome, being dismissed and disrespected.

“You deny saying ‘That’s the way we’ve always done things,’ but we hear it regularly,” they say. “You tell me I don’t have the experience for the projects I want. How am I going to get experience if you won’t let me take things on?” And, “Don’t call me kid.”

“Don’t call me kid,” sums up much of the Millennials’ complaints. They know they don’t have the experience of their elders, but they also know they bring their own skill set to the workforce. They want to be taken seriously and treated as professionals. The “kid” label puts them in a box that is difficult to get out of no matter how skilled a professional the Millennial is.

The touchy-feely middle ground

As the dialogue continues, the Gen Xers and younger Boomer groups take the floor. The groups are similar to each other in words and tone. “We can build bridges between our juniors and seniors,” they say. “We were the lost generation, and we found our own way. We’d like to use our perspective and experience to bridge the gap.”

These groups personalize what the Millennials say. “It makes me sad that you feel unwelcome, excluded,” they tell their juniors. “We value you and want you to know that.” “You sound so distraught.”

Now, let me remind you of the opening Millennial statement. “How do I deal with touchy-feely managers when I want to get down to business?”

And the elders who asked, “How do I listen better?”

My answer to the elders’ question: listen better by not personalizing the straightforward communication style of your juniors when they speak in the direct fashion that is their trademark communication style.

Style isn’t personal

I once heard a couple of young people badger each other in a dressing room by speaking abruptly and leveling challenges. “Hurry up or I’m leaving,” one said. “Fine, just go then,” the other said. “I’m trying this on.” Since I don’t talk to my friends that way, if I had a conversation that sounded like that, it would mean something was wrong.

But the friends I overheard did not consider anything wrong. There wasn’t a problem. They worked through differences by laying things on the line. And that’s what the Millennials in my intergenerational training do if they feel safe to be themselves. That’s why Millennials don’t pretend to like doing grunt work or don’t want to tell someone how their weekend was who doesn’t really care. That’s why a Millennial might talk to the CEO like anyone else.

“Knock off the dramatics,” they say. “Just give us what we need to do our jobs and let us do them. Lay it out straight and get over it.” “Don’t make me jump through hoops to make a simple point.”

But Gen X and Boomer ears hear a problem, and emotionalize stark Millennial communication. It’s because they genuinely care. But there’s a destructive and demoralizing undercurrent in the concerned response of elder workers. It comes across as parenting rather than coworker support. In the name of genuine caring, the elders in the workforce turn their younger colleagues into the “kids” that they refer to them as. It’s a subtle way of pulling rank.

More rank pulling

In my training, the assumption of rank becomes apparent when the elder Boomers and Matures take the floor. They saunter to the front like a second coming. While Millennials have a reputation for a sense of entitlement, in my trainings, that entitlement is palatable with the eldest group. They don’t say it, but their words reflect the attitude: “We got here first. Respect me for that.” One member interrupted her younger supervisor saying, “You will listen to me because I’m your senior!” Yes, the comment was spoken in jest. Even so, every young person in the room tightened up. Could you imagine a Millennial telling a Mature, “You will listen to me because I’m a Millennial,” even in jest?

The elders think that their juniors don’t respect authority. But Millennials are delighted to find genuine authority they can respect. “If you want me to respect you,” they will say in honest moments. “Give me a reason.”

Elder attitude adjustments

What do the elder Boomers want?

“Don’t call me old,” they say. (The dreaded word “old” often slips out of Millennials’ mouths before they can stop themselves.) “And don’t discount my experience,” the elders continue. “It’s not that I want you to walk five miles in the snow uphill both ways like I did. But I do want you to know what it was like for me, and how I got where I did.”

When an elder who worked hard to get where he is believes his juniors understand what he went through, layers of attitude dissipate. Then the elders don’t need to eat their young or hold them back. They mainly yearn to be recognized and acknowledged for what they did with their years. Once they are, they can reach their hands out in support.

A formula for understanding between generations

If you ask directly, you can learn a lot about how to communicate with people who have different backgrounds than yours. You can learn even more if you listen, not only to what they intend to say, but to what they didn’t intend to say, and to how they say what they say. Honor each others’ styles and dignity.

Gen x vs. baby boomers doesn’t have to be your office culture. When it comes to generations, if you don’t call anyone old or a kid, you’ll probably get along just fine.


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