Communicating in the Multi-Generational Workplace

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The American workforce demographic is transitioning. According to a study by UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and the YEC, millennials or Gen-Y (those born between 1976 and 2001) will make up 36% of the workforce in 2014 and 46% by 2020. With baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) making up roughly 40% of the workforce, many people are learning how to collaborate in multi-generational work environments.

Stereotypes certainly exist for each generation. Millennials are thought to be a needy, entitled group that is more comfortable communicating through technology than in person. Baby boomers are considered to be stubbornly stuck in their ways, not willing to learn or use the latest technology. While neither stereotype is entirely true, they do bring to light some of the differences between the generations, especially in terms of workplace communication.

It’s no secret that technology is changing the way we communicate and, in many workplaces, millennials are the first to embrace and incorporate the newest technologies into their communications at the office. Millennials prefer to send emails or instant messages while baby boomers may be more inclined to meet face-to-face or pick up a phone to talk things through. Of course, each communication type is appropriate for different situations; some problems require more than a quick text, but not everything needs to be discussed in an hour-long meeting.

Given the differences between the preferred communication styles of each generation, we decided to analyze how the written communication style of millennials compares to the written communication of baby boomers. To perform this meta-analysis, we analyzed the content from 20 long form blogs written by baby boomers on baby boomer themes (such as retirement and financial planning) and compared them to 20 long form blogs written by millennials on millennial themes (such as entering the workforce and moving away from home).

What did we find? At least in regards to written communication, the two generations may not be as different as everyone believes them to be. They both use language that is equally trustworthy, engaging, persuasive, and confident. They reference themselves equally, and both write at about an 8th grade reading level.

The one major difference was in the amount of questions used. The millennial blogs contained more than twice the amount of questions as the baby boomer blogs. This may be due to a variety of reasons:

  1. Millennials don’t like to be kept in the dark – A report by LifeWay Research found transparency to be a characteristic millennials consistently look for in a leader.
  2. Millennials are used to (and crave) immediate feedback – In a poll conducted by MTV, “80% of millennials said they want regular feedback from their managers, and 75% yearn for mentors.” Gen-Y is accustomed to instant responses to their text messages, Facebook posts, and Tweets. When submitting a report to their boss, they automatically expect the same kind of response time and will use questions to solicit a response if one is not immediately given.
  3. Millennials are inquisitive – According to a report from Pew Research Center, millennials are becoming the most educated generation in American history, “driven largely by the demands of a modern knowledge-based economy.”
  4. Millennials want to know how their work fits into the big picture – Because they are more likely to blend the line between personal and work life, millennials seek out jobs that align with their values and provide opportunities for personal growth. According to a survey from Time Magazine, millennials want to know the motives and reasoning behind the tasks they are assigned and how those tasks affect them long-term.

What can we learn from this? Perhaps the key to working in a multi-generational environment is to let go of stereotypes and work to understand the communication styles of everyone in the office. While the preferred methods of communication may be different, everyone appreciates effective, authentic communication.