Age Diversity

Turnabout’s fair play

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

There is a lot in the media about how to communicate, manage and retain the Generation Y – Gen Y – folks flooding our businesses. (Gen Y is defined as those people born between 1977 and 1995.) I find that topic interesting and very useful as a mentor to many young people. So I read a lot on the subject to keep up professionally. And, I have a message to share with my Gen Y friends . . .

Learning to communicate is a two-way street! I will speak for myself here, and let you extrapolate to the general population if you wish. When you reach the workplace (and I truly hope you do, and soon!) you will likely find a mix of generations. It’s not uncommon to see four generations in the workplace. So learning the “stereotypical experiences” of the people around you should be important to everyone. My totally unscientific observation is that while quite a few business leaders in the Boomer (1945 – 1964) and Gen X (1965 – 1976) are making the attempt to “understand” the world view of Gen Y, very few Gen Y’s are taking an interest in “figuring out” why we old folks think the way we do.

A case in point, with names changed to protect the guilty, came up in the last month or so. I was meeting with a Gen Y mentee, let’s call him Rick. During our session, Rick mentioned that he was having a difficult time understanding why one of his older (Boomer) colleagues was wasting time on something called an “Internal Memo.” Rick said, “He spent time making a Word template for this Internal Memo thing and who the heck is going to use that? We all communicate by text message or e-mail, not Word documents!”

Now I’m with Rick on this one. Except for the obvious things like contracts, flyers, specifications, etc. I rarely use Word documents outside of my own office. And then, if I do, they are frequently converted to a pdf file and attached to an email. I clearly remember, however, that one of the first things my Administrative Assistant did when we all got a PC word-processor was to make Internal and External Memorandum templates! The point is, however, that Rick has taken little to no time to think about or explore why his colleague is frustrated by “only” generic email communications when it comes to running the business. What’s meant for employees only? What’s meant for outside consumption? Those considerations were important in my day – the day of the typewriter and memorandum. How do we keep things straight?

Well, of course we do, but it’s sometimes hard for the Boomers who haven’t grown up with technology to understand the concept of keyword searches, tags, categories and hyperlinks. Let’s face it young person, even YOU aren’t able to keep up with all the new technology changes. Even YOU learn about the latest and greatest “things” from your friends. So my advice is take time to understand other people’s context for interpreting the world.

Here’s another basic example. The phone. When I left engineering school and went to my first job, I was lucky enough to have already worked in a place where we had “push buttons” on the phones for putting people on hold and picking up more than one line. I was trained to never let the phone ring more than twice before picking it up. When I advanced to management and had my own office, phone extensions and Administrative Assistant, she (yes, it was “always” a she at that time) was responsible for making sure the phone was answered and my calls were answered if I was in a meeting.

My, how times have changed. I don’t have a “land line” anymore. My “smart phone” is used primarily for email, text and internet. I, like you my young friend, dislike the phone (as a phone) immensely. I do not answer it 95% of the time, and if I do answer, it is because your phone number was recognized. Your name and perhaps your photo came up on the screen, so I knew who was likely on the other end of the connection. I “never” answer an “ID Blocked” number or an unknown number.

Like you, I usually make arrangements ahead of time before calling. Either by text message, email or chat message. However, please take pity on my colleagues. They, like I, were trained to use the phone as the primary means of communication between people not in front of each other. Where I consider the phone rude, they consider it a natural way (still the main way?) of communicating. Getting some of my cohorts to use email is a major step toward modernization for them. My spouse is continually reminding me that I am “unusual” in that I grew up in the technology world and that my expectations of my cohorts is WAY out of line. When it comes to the use of technology I find myself much closer to the young people than to most of the Boomers.

Still, I’ve taken the time to learn about you, my Gen Y friend. I try to figure out how you communicate, what your context is and a little bit about your experiences. I know enough to realize you are all NOT the same and try to take the time to know each of you as an individual. Still, it’s important to know about the “generational experience” to have a starting point. What have you done to learn about my experiences: the Boomer experience? Do you have any concept of how I developed the worldview I and my colleagues have? How will you appreciate the workplace age diversity? Do you know why “loyalty” is important to the Boomer running the company you joined? Things are changing fast. You will get your turn to run things (many of you already are!), and I can just about guarantee that you will be scratching your head over the young people coming into your business. How will you handle that?