For quite a few years now, there have been at least four generations in the workplace: baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z. Dr Megan Gerhardt, professor and author, highlights how this has given rise to some common assumptions around different generations at the workplace.

Prior to the pandemic, it was argued that millennials and Gen Z-ers wanted greater flexibility over where they worked and did not need or prefer to work in an office. When workplaces went remote in 2020, it was unquestioningly assumed that they would thrive while the older generations would suffer due to poorer tech skills or a longing for traditional workspaces.

But examining multiple datasets from that period, Dr Gerhart saw that it was the youngest workers who reported the lowest levels of job satisfaction during the pandemic, with Gen Z struggling the most, followed by millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers.

The fallacy of stereotypes regarding generational cohorts, coupled with the need to improve collaboration and cater to unique generational needs and motivations, spurs experts like Dr Gerhart to call for greater ‘gentelligence’ at work.

Gentelligence is the ability to break down age-based tensions and instead build up intergenerational power. Instead of viewing generational differences as a source of friction that needs to be ‘managed’, gentelligence sees them as learning opportunities – every generational cohort has something to teach, and something to learn, from other cohorts. However, this learning is possible only when we let go of some assumptions. 

Assumption 1: generalizations about cohorts always hold true

Much research has been conducted about generational differences and how to tackle it. However, overreliance on research can make you put people in a box unknowingly and hamper authentic conversations with them. Instead of relying only on research data, Val Grubb, author and CEO, recommends having authentic conversations to see what matters to your colleagues and how to motivate and engage with them.

Assumption 2: we are shaped only by our cohort

Typical research on generational differences is limited to examining relationships within a cohort. However, in real life, each generation benefits from many more intergenerational influences. For instance, a millennial could be heavily influenced by a Gen X-er cousin. A baby boomer could have very positive experiences with Gen Z due to close, frequent, and authentic interactions with her grandchildren. These interactions might make the tone of the intergenerational work relationships between you and your colleagues very different from what was expected.

Assumption 3: generational differences are seen in senior-junior relationships only

In the past, it was assumed that internships and entry-level roles would be given to the youngest generation in the workplace, while supervisor and leadership roles would go to the older cohorts.

However, socioeconomic changes mean that more employees are starting from scratch in other roles or industries after a couple of years in their current careers. Others are returning to the workplace after a hiatus due to parenthood responsibilities, retirement, or other commitments. Intergenerational dynamics are no longer seen in the context of top-down manager-subordinate relationships alone. In fact, the movie, The Intern, focuses on the idea that information and wisdom could be shared across multiple levels and generations within the workplace.

Assumption 4: when addressing goals and motivations, a one-size-fits-all approach works

When it comes to goal setting and performance appraisals, managers often invite friction by assuming the goals, milestones, and targets for a reporting employee based on generational stereotypes.

For instance, a baby boomer manager may assume that house-buying is not part of a millennial team member’s life goals, since more and more millennials are reportedly choosing to rent rather than buy (this itself is a misleading stereotype). This may cause the manager to assume that the person will be renting an apartment close to work. However, a conversation with the person might actually reveal that they are purchasing a multigenerational home in the suburbs and would appreciate more hybrid-work options to reduce commute time. Making room for diverse life goals, career goals, and work styles is essential to successful intergenerational interactions at work.

Assumption 5: a unified approach to technology works best

While today’s enterprise technology is more powerful, flexible, and nifty, we often assume that everyone wants the same kind of workplace apps, devices, and digital policies. Within a generationally-diverse workplace, it helps to accommodate multiple technology modes and practices based on individual preferences and accessibility concerns.

By breaking free of assumptions that hinder intergenerational dynamics at work, we open up room for best practices that lead to increased learning and opportunities for all generations.

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