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 generationalstereotypes 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 TerrieCampbell, vice president of strategic marketing for Ricoh Americas, adding: “It’s more of an undercurrent, a subtext and definitelysomething business leaders need to manage. It has serious implicationsfor 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 generationalchange is no less than a tidal wave in America’s companies. But rightnow and for the next few years we are going to be stuck in the middle ofa mash-up. Employers, marketers, and politicians will have tosimultaneously appeal to the oldest Americans and the youngest Americansto be successful.”

Plenty of Misinformation

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

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

“Or the Gen X worker sittingin the corner, skeptical of institutions, resentful of her employer andmercenary in her motivations. Or the fussy, aging Boomer who isseemingly blind to how he is overly traditional and technologicallyincompetent.”

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

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

What is true, however, is that youngerworkers have grown up with technology, and it’s as natural for them tocommunicate in a virtual world as it is face to face. Older workers maybe more likely to view online interactions as a poor substitute for realface-to-face conversations and may focus on a traditionalworkday and setting.

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

Learning Opportunities

The perception, not the reality, tends to cause the problems. Perhaps millennials aren’t really lazy, but just not logging in long hours atthe 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 totheir screens.

A Winning Combination

It may be time to stop seeing the differences that existas 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, hittersand fielders,” said Campbell.

So how can organizations successfullynavigate generational tensions and encourage cooperative and productiveworking relationships?

Pointout prejudices. Everyone in an organization should know that theirperceptions are colored by personal experiences, and that the truth isalways somewhere in the middle. “Older generations can learn a lot fromyounger ones – especially how to make one’s needs known and seek analignment between personal values and work,” said Melmed.“Likewise,younger workers who are accustomed to having the world’s knowledgeat their fingertips need to recognize that experience can’t be found onWikipedia or even captured in a Facebook post. It’s not easy to sustaina dialogue, but by respecting the strengths of each generation’sworking style, it is possible to cultivate a harmonious and effectiveworkplace.”

Focus on information mobility. Different generations havedifferent work styles and definitions of the work day. Informationmobility allows employees to access business information when and howthey need it to complete a task, said Campbell. “We recommendcompanies take a hard look at whether their business information isworking for employees of every work style,” said Campbell.

Modifytraining programs. “Companies should configure their mentorship andtraining programs with generational differences in mind,” said Campbell.“They need to ensure that older workers have a comfort level with usingtechnology effectively and that younger workers develop the peopleskills that previous generations have valued. 

Also considerleadership training, specifically with millennials in mind. “Considerhow you can adapt or introduce training sessions that will resonatewith this generation. If you’re not sure how to do this, crowd sourceideas with millennials or create a task force of younger workers to tacklethe task,” said Pollak.

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

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

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

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