Workplace Culture

How to Navigate the Multigenerational Workplace

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Multigenerational workplaces are often diverse spaces where we not only spend most of our time, but where we encounter people we might otherwise have never met. Our work lives can be rich and fulfilling sources of collaborative experiences and new perspectives. They can also be fraught with tension when differences in approach, personality, and generation come to a head. Given the ever-changing makeup of our workplaces, it’s hard to simply avoid working alongside people from different generations altogether; we need to find ways to create generational ease.

It’s the differences in generational values, attitudes toward work, and approaches to problem-solving that can sometimes lead to tension and conflict.

Ultimately, it’s the differences in generational values, attitudes toward work, and approaches to problem-solving that can sometimes lead to tension and conflict. And while conflict isn’t inherently something to fear (conflict can of course be productive or unproductive), generational friction can make working with your colleagues a challenge. Keep reading for key considerations and strategies to help shift your mindset and bolster generational ease at work.

What is a generation?

A generation is a collection of people who grow up in the same time period, a range of about 20 years, during which those people are born, grow into adults, and begin to have children of their own. The people that make up each generation share historical events, experiences, and changes that inform their lives. Some generations have experienced world wars together, some have seen the birth of the Internet, and some have shared cultural experiences like the popularity of music genres (think 1970s disco or 1990s grunge).

While each generation shares these experiences, the individual members of a particular generation are of course individuals with different values, attitudes, and behaviours. However, it’s helpful to recognize that there are similarities among those in a generation and that can actually foster healthy interactions across those generations. It’s these similarities in generational cohorts that add to our appreciation of the richness and complexity of the human experience.

Below you’ll see each generation outlined by year, according to the Pew Research Centre, and their percentage of the Canadian workforce, as per Statistics Canada’s 2021 research.

 

Which events have shaped my own life?

In order to better understand your own generational cohort, take a moment to ask yourself: Which events do I share with my generation? Which events have shaped and informed my life?

Whether it’s the 2008 recession, the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of social media, or attending school during a global pandemic, there are a number of societal and historical experiences that we share with those in our generation. And while we have all experienced COVID-19, for example, it will have affected each generation differently – those who were retired or in assisted living care will have had a very different experience than those who had to suddenly complete their high school education online.

As a result of those shared experiences, generations often share values, too. Reminding yourself that you share common social and historical experiences with other Gen Xers, for example, that wouldn’t resonate the same way with Gen Z, is helpful in that it pushes us to see things from a broader perspective.

When you’re faced with a conflict in a multigenerational workplace, you first need to determine if there’s a generational element involved. Is this conflict a result of generational differences, or are generational differences exacerbating this conflict? If there is indeed a generational element, then it’s helpful to take a moment of pause and reflect on those differences.

When you’re faced with a conflict in a multigenerational workplace, you first need to determine if there’s a generational element involved.

What don’t I know?

Often, when differences in values, attitudes toward authority, or even approaches to problem-solving arise because of generational differences among the people involved, our inclination is to persuade others to do things our way. But, as writer and activist Gloria Steinem wrote, “We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.” Her words are a helpful reminder that when generational friction arises, we need to ask ourselves what we’re missing. Why does my colleague approach problems from this vantage point? What perspective am I not seeing here? Are there particular values I’m unaware of that are informing their behaviour?

Going into conflict situations from a position of curiosity, instead of frustration, will not only help ensure that the conflict is resolved productively, but is a better means of learning something new from the experience.

Do I have my own generational biases?

It’s easy to pinpoint the stereotypes that people have about our own generations. You might hear people assume that your generation is bad with technology, or entitled, or uncompromising. But we rarely look for those biases in ourselves. When generational conflict arises at work, ask yourself: Am I making assumptions about this colleague based on their age?

Additionally, it’s important to ensure that when something bothers you at work – the way a colleague communicates with you, how others behave in meetings, how tasks are delegated, others’ expectations – that you speak up. If we can’t speak openly about our perceptions and preferences, we won’t be able to find any resolution or common ground with our colleagues.

Where can I find common ground in a multigenerational workplace?

Managing generational conflict at work isn’t about figuring out how to persuade other generations to do things the way we do, it’s about understanding the differences in our values and attitudes and finding areas where they overlap. It’s about communicating openly and respectfully with one another to better understand their perspectives, and to ensure we are heard from our point of view. It’s in these areas of joint interest or common ground that we can come to a solution to our conflict that acknowledges everyone’s unique position.

Once we’re able to speak to the source of a conflict, understand the different lived experiences and perspectives we bring to our multigenerational workplaces, and find ways to not only teach but learn from others, we will be in a much better position to work collaboratively, leading to innovation, creativity, and positive change.


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Author

Jessica Antony

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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