There are a lot of stereotypes about today's workplaces, including the unsubstantiated notion that you have to be in your 20s to understand today's technologies

But all those misperceptions are taking their toll. 

All is not well in today’s multi-generational workplace. Tensions are brewing between age groups, according to a Harris Poll survey on behalf of Ricoh Americas Corp., a global technology company.

Can't We All Get Along?

The poll of more than 1,000 working adults shows generational stereotypes are alive in the workplace. See that lazy millennial next to that hard-working but technologically challenged Baby Boomer?

  • Nearly 70 percent said younger workers are frustrating when it comes to work ethic
  • Nearly half claim younger employees have to help older workers navigate technology

When asked which generation makes the best mentors, each group chose their own.

Ricoh officials call it Generation Gap 2.0.

It's a real phenomenon, said Terrie Campbell, vice president of strategic marketing for Ricoh Americas, adding: “It’s more of an undercurrent, a subtext and definitely something business leaders need to manage. It has serious implications for teams, employee training and mentor relationships.”

The numbers themselves tell a story. 

“The Baby Boomers (a generation 76 million strong, according to the US Census Bureau) is reaching traditional retirement age at the same time millennials (a generation 80 million strong) are reaching their 30s,” said Lindsey Pollak, a millennial workplace expert.

“This generational change is no less than a tidal wave in America’s companies. But right now and for the next few years we are going to be stuck in the middle of a mash-up. Employers, marketers, and politicians will have to simultaneously appeal to the oldest Americans and the youngest Americans to be successful.”

Plenty of Misinformation

While some differences between generations may be rooted in reality, there are misconceptions involved as well.

“It’s easy to conjure a stereotype of the lazy and distracted millennial, needing constant attention and expecting immediate praise,” said Bryan Melmed, vice president of insights services for advertising intelligence provider Exponential Interactive.

“Or the Gen X worker sitting in the corner, skeptical of institutions, resentful of her employer and mercenary in her motivations. Or the fussy, aging Boomer who is seemingly blind to how he is overly traditional and technologically incompetent.”

While these characterizations may fit some, they don’t fit all.

“Every generation comes into the workforce with its own ideals, and millennials are certainly no exception,” said Melmed. “There is truth to the stereotype of them needing praise and expecting transparency, but other assumptions are clearly wrong. An entire generation can’t be lazy, for example.”

What is true, however, is that younger workers have grown up with technology, and it’s as natural for them to communicate in a virtual world as it is face to face. Older workers may be more likely to view online interactions as a poor substitute for real face-to-face conversations and may focus on a traditional workday and setting.

And younger workers may gravitate to a less traditional format, according to Ricoh. But certainly not all of them.

The perception, not the reality, tends to cause the problems. Perhaps millennials aren’t really lazy, but just not logging in long hours at the office because they tend to bring work home, according to Ricoh. And perhaps Baby Boomers aren’t technologically challenged — just value the Internet less than millennials, who are too glued to their screens.

A Winning Combination

It may be time to stop seeing the differences that exist as barriers and instead turn them into an advantage. “Perhaps workplaces function best with a mix of work styles, much as a winning baseball team needs a mix of good pitchers, hitters and fielders,” said Campbell.

So how can organizations successfully navigate generational tensions and encourage cooperative and productive working relationships?

Point out prejudices. Everyone in an organization should know that their perceptions are colored by personal experiences, and that the truth is always somewhere in the middle. “Older generations can learn a lot from younger ones – especially how to make one’s needs known and seek an alignment between personal values and work,” said Melmed. “Likewise, younger workers who are accustomed to having the world’s knowledge at their fingertips need to recognize that experience can’t be found on Wikipedia or even captured in a Facebook post. It’s not easy to sustain a dialogue, but by respecting the strengths of each generation’s working style, it is possible to cultivate a harmonious and effective workplace.”

Focus on information mobility. Different generations have different work styles and definitions of the work day. Information mobility allows employees to access business information when and how they need it to complete a task, said Campbell. “We recommend companies take a hard look at whether their business information is working for employees of every work style,” said Campbell.

Modify training programs. “Companies should configure their mentorship and training programs with generational differences in mind,” said Campbell. “They need to ensure that older workers have a comfort level with using technology effectively and that younger workers develop the people skills that previous generations have valued. 

Also consider leadership training, specifically with millennials in mind. “Consider how you can adapt or introduce training sessions that will resonate with this generation. If you’re not sure how to do this, crowd source ideas with millennials or create a task force of younger workers to tackle the task,” said Pollak.

Form bonds between generations. “Consider how you can improve skill sharing among co-workers from different generations,” said Pollak. “The Hartford’s 2014 Benefits for Tomorrow Study found 96 percent of baby boomers believe millennials bring new skills and ideas to the workplace. Take advantage of all different kinds of expertise. Programs, such as co-mentoring, are a great start, allowing a millennials and co-workers from different generations share knowledge and skills with each other.”

Take a formal approach to the problem. Ricoh has established a multi-generational internal committee to look at solutions to generational differences. The goal is to harness these differences and turn them into company strengths.

In the end, all generations play a crucial role in any business. “There’s a lot for employees to learn from one another,” said Campbell.

Title image by Len Matthews  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.