IT Employment

10+ ways to minimize generational differences in the workplace

If you're having a tough time communicating with co-workers who are much younger or older than you are, take heart: These tips can help you close the generation gap.

Boomers... Gen Xers... Millennials... Gen Zs. All of these types of people are probably in your workplace. Communicating with people within your own age group presents a significant challenge. Among different age groups, this challenge increases even more.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Focus on similarities rather than differences

Half-empty or half-full?

Your perspective influences the way you approach things. Saying to yourself, "We have too big an age range and we will never be able to work things out" simply invites defeat. On the other hand, saying to yourself, "Yes we do have a big age range, but we all want and need to succeed, so we have to work things out" projects a far more positive outlook.

I'm not saying you have to do group hugs and sing songs every day. Just realize that you're in this situation together. Just as a single body has different parts, so too does an organization have workers of different ages. Like it or not, they have to work together for the organization to succeed.

2: Recognize that change does occur

Rare is the company or IT department that still uses 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, green monochrome displays, or 3270-type dumb terminals. Those who still do -- that is, those who fail to accept or adopt new technology -- risk becoming obsolete.

If you belong to one of the older age groups, you might be more resistant to newer technologies. But unless you adapt, you may be left behind. On the other hand, you may have experience that transcends changes in technology. Even though you have worked with older technology, principles you learned might still be adapted to the new technology.

3: Recognize the value and the perils of the "tried and true"

  • Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
  • Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal...

No, these two sayings do not contradict each other. The first suggests that we learn from the past. The second suggests that we avoid becoming mired in the past.

Your older co-worker might not really believe that "older is always better," despite what you might think. If so, there might be a problem. However, learning from the old ways, keeping the useful, and changing or eliminating the less useful will benefit you and the organization.

4: Be aware that "new" technology may not be

  • What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

The author of this passage died long before the National Football League was created. Nonetheless, had he been able to watch, he might have been happy to see how true his words were. For example, one of the main features of offense in the past few years has been the wildcat formation. You might see it used during a game and think, "Wow, what a novel idea." But if your grandfather is watching with you, he might say instead, "Ha, they're using the single wing formation again!" Or let's say you're watching American Idol. Your grandmother sits down beside you and says, "Reminds me of Ted Mack and the Amateur Hour. Your uncle joins you and says, "No way; it's more like The Gong Show."

What seems new really may not be. Your older co-worker might look at your thin client and say, "Hey, that's just like a 3270 'green screen.'" Or during your meeting about cloud computing, someone might say, "Sounds just like what John McCarthy and Douglas Parkhill were saying 50 years ago" -- and that person would be right.

In other words, the "technology gap" may be smaller than you think. If you're looking at the younger worker's "new" technology, try to relate it by analogy to something you worked with before. If you looking at the older worker's "old" technology, try to find ways it mirrors what you're working with now.

5: Develop a curiosity for things unknown to you

  • He who ceases to learn is already half dead.

I already have discussed how important it is for older workers to learn new technology. The same applies to younger workers with respect to older technology. The more you understand about how computers worked in years past, the greater your appreciation for the way they work now. Furthermore, you might yourself saying, "So THAT'S why they do it this way."

The same applies to the leisure interests of that other age group. I know fewer than 5% of the songs my daughters listen to. But once I joked with them about why they should come with me to see George Strait in concert: I told them that his opening act was Lady Gaga.

6: Ask questions rather than make statements

Suppose you're one of the older workers and you think your younger co-worker's idea is totally useless. Or suppose you're one of the younger workers and you think likewise of your older co-worker's idea. Be careful about saying so. Even if you are right, the ill will that might result could prove harmful.

Instead, do what most great teachers do: Rather than teach (or state) the point, ask appropriate questions so that in answering those questions, the other person gets the point by him/herself.

If a co-worker suggests that the backup procedure should use only one set of tapes, you could say, "I see. What happens if the system dies in the middle of backup?" When the other person answers, "We will have a mixed-up set of tapes," you might continue, "How good is this set of tapes for doing a restore?" This approach is better than saying, "You fool, if the system dies, you have no good backup set remaining!"

7: Avoid characterizations based on age

If you have a disagreement with someone of a different age group, try to focus on the technical or work issues. Avoid thinking that the person holds that view simply because of his or her age. Furthermore, saying it out loud. Not only will that cause discomfort -- it could put your company and you in legal trouble.

8: Define your acronyms

Acronyms always cause trouble when IT people speak with non-IT people. However, even within an IT department, acronyms can cause confusion if they mean different things to different people. It can be particularly confusing if different concepts arose at different periods of time. So, for example, if you refer to SAP, be clear whether you mean the enterprise software company and package, or a service access point.

9: Paraphrase before answering

Many disagreements really may not be. Paraphrasing before responding to a statement or question is especially important when discussing something with someone in a different age group. Make sure you are really addressing the other person's point, not your (possibly mistaken) view of that person's point.

10: Be careful about cultural or historical references

Using cultural references when speaking can add interest and can underscore your point. However, make sure that others will understand your references. You might use the term "space shuttle disaster" and mean the 1986 Challenger incident. Your listener, on the other hand, might be thinking instead of the 2003 Columbia incident, or vice versa.

11: If that other age-group worker was right after all, say so

  • When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.

    But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

    -- Mark Twain

If that other person was right, say so. When you do, you create an opportunity to build cohesion. And if you are recipient of such a comment, take it graciously and not with an "I told you so" attitude.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

27 comments
freda
freda

I found this to be very good. wanted to get the download & could not. Maybe because I am over 60 & how the download is done is now different, seems I have to look for it among all the other downloads, instead of being taken to the correct one.

Bill Rankin
Bill Rankin

I'm an "OLD" IT guy. In the course of my IT career I've had to continually upgrade my knowledge base with every new operating system, system bus change, new processor change and versions of all types of applications; ever since the 8086 and Dos 2.2/CPM. Old technologists are usually unemployed technologists. Regardless of age, failure to maintain expertise in the field will get you new "opportunities", like training your replacement or helping write the documentation for the outsourced position in Sanscrit or Mandarin. When I hear the "OLDSTERS-are-incompetent" implication arguments, I get tickled. Especially when I get the call later asking for advice. I work with electronics engineers that support enterprise networks - you would not believe the stuff they ask! After all the blah, blah, blah; it comes down to what you know and can do. Everything else is crap. My advise to the old folks, be nice and don't kill'em outright. They may eventually become useful some day - encourage them. My advise to the youngsters, be nice and don't piss'em off. They know things you'll need to know to get ahead in the organization and can give insight in the ever changing environment in IT - ask and listen. Hang ups about generational issues point to personal immaturity. I would suggest all keep their eye on the prize - doing the job right the first time. Wait for it... Everything else is crap.

kjmartin
kjmartin

Silence whippersnapper! I always find that works. With experience you learn that just because you can do something with technology doesn't mean you should.

Dogcatcher
Dogcatcher

Younger managers need to realize that many older workers have no interest in the manager's job because they don't want to deal with budgets, schedules, personnel, evaluations, meetings, etc. They are comfortable with the lower-pressure role of doing the work, as distinguished from managing people to see that the work gets done. When this is understood, the younger manager can view the technically more competent older worker as a resource rather than a threat.

sboverie
sboverie

As an older IT professional, I rely on my experiences of working in IT from the 80's to compete with newcomers with college degrees in computer science. The advantage to the long experience is that I have seen where IT was and I remember things that are not taught in college. A lot of what is called new and innovative is a rehash of something done long ago. The hardware improves and software is a work in progress.

maj37
maj37

Finally a writer that recognizes it is not always the responsibility of the people already there to understand what the newer/younger workers are about. Like you said both sides need to be aware of, take into account, and be understanding of the differences. maj

Organic53
Organic53

"Rare is the company or IT department that still uses 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, green monochrome displays, or 3270-type dumb terminals. Those who still do ? that is, those who fail to accept or adopt new technology ? risk becoming obsolete." Obviously, you've never heard of "If it works, don't fix it." Bottom line is it is sometimes cheaper to keep the old technology than moving to new. The issue is being prepared to replace and not waiting till the last minute. Just because something is new, does not mean it is better.

Lauren5158
Lauren5158

Great points, and so applicable in every walk of life! Thank you Calvin, for the refresher in human relations.

JohnShell
JohnShell

Good article and I applaud you for your idealistic thinking. However, in the realistic wrokplace the generational friction increases. I am one of the older IT workers. There are a number of us in this very large company. By far, there are many more younger workers. For the most part we blend well when left to our own devices. The generational problem finds most of its traction from management. The tendency of management is to promote the younger workers, not the older workers. This practice generates resentment from the older workers toward the younger workers: The younger managers initially and the younger workers subsequently. Many of us older workers believe this to be a management tactic to divide and rule. The IT knowledge of the younger workers is thorough and detailed. Their knowledge of the business process is meager. So as the older workers leave, management complains of the "brain drain." Yet management accelerates the brain drain with their tendencies. So we will continue to progress in spite of ourselves and we shall retain the competition, friction and hostility.

georgeal
georgeal

Always remember that most of the "New" technology was created by the older generation - then instead of just playing with whatever it is they move on to the next thing - then the younger generation become the older generation and become dissatisfied with things so they start to create new things rather than just using things ..... but there is still no substitute whatsoever for experience

Caroline Black
Caroline Black

not just generations Calvin - it's about building respect and a common values base between people - these are some of the strategies I counsel people who are working with overseas partners to use too.....wise words and good practice in any situation where you want to build trust and respect between folk

HanksComputer
HanksComputer

Great Article...you covered the subject better than anyone I have read in many years. Thanks Hank

Jody Gilbert
Jody Gilbert

We just launched a major site upgrade, and a few things were temporarily unavailable. You should have no trouble with downloads now. j

VickyToo
VickyToo

The download link didn't work for me either and the search didn't return anything as well. My guess it that the document was never loaded in the Download section. I did a copy and paste into Word, but it would have been nice to get the Tech Republic logo and copyright info.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

different pressure certainly. Pressure is how close you are to the limit of your capabilities, not what they are. I'm pretty good at what I do, I don't care how old or how good a manager anyone is. They will have to be special to be more competent than I, and even mopre so to do their own own job as well. The assumption that the title manager (whether they are any good or not) means that you are better at everything your people do is the real problem. And you are part if it with a phrase like "comfortable with the lower-pressure role of doing the work" Because if you weren't an experinced developer with the required tools and the domain knowledge, you'd be well past the limit of your abilities, quick. Horses for courses...

Who Am I Really
Who Am I Really

in a local grocery store (international name) a full ancient terminal and modern server together in a Rack with a 12" mono (Green on Black) attached to the terminal someone left the door open and as I walked by I peeked in and saw it there

rastr
rastr

> The tendency of management is to promote the younger workers Perhaps the older workers who are promotable have mostly already been promoted. The younger workers who show leadership energy and abilities are therefore the ones most often promoted. Too bad that promotion doesn't also entail business training, or training to utilize the experience of the older workers... I'm older, and it's pretty clear I can have any position I want if I'm willing to adopt the personality and traits expected of the position...

ckelly
ckelly

Eccl 1:3-18 NIV - if you read all of that passage, it's pretty damn depressing! Nice write up. As an older IT person, I always looked forward to new stuff and really enjoy looking back - or telling - how far we've come in a short time. New stuff is cool. BUT - I did convert my command prompt windows to look like an old green screen monitor. And I still have my Kaypro II....

PhilippeV
PhilippeV

Ten years ago, you might have thought that your grandma or grandpa would not be able to use the same Internet sites that we do today: technology shopping, social networks, VOD, news/TV sites, or even just using their mobile phoen to send a SMS. But today, all computerized tools/devices have made so many efforts in their customizations and accessiblity, or just in their "artificial intelligence" to adapt to our interests and ways of using them, that they have found a public in all ages of population. I'm often surpized to see how they can be extrmeely creative when using Photoshop, managing their holiday photos, communicating on chats, sending SMS, participating in forums, creating/correcting documents online, managing communities, acting as moderators, finding the best offers on the internet, taking the time to learn things and read correctly the specs, to exhibit the weaknesses, solving online customer problems, that their presence is now well recognized. They may be longer to create things, but their creation are generally much more polished, finished, and extremely valuable. They are in fact providing lots of things about their experience, freely, and in a very helpful way. They also know much more today what the younger generations are doing, what they feel, how they meet. They know their language too, and in fact they take lots of responsabilities online. You don't necessarily know their age, but when you're online, it does not really matter. Even in the daily life, the gap in their health between generations is getting smaller: even when they are retired, they are still young enough in their body to share a lot of activities with younger people. and it's a fact that they also live a longer time with/near their children as they are young adults. Lots of services are exchanged more easily across generations. On the Internet, or in the general consumer market, there's much less differences between products. This is also true in their social life. You'll still be young enough after you're retired, in many job positions. And they are very open to the insertion problem of younger generations. The paternalist/hierarchic relation scheme across them is fading out, and younger generations also know and feel faster the problems specific to older ages (they are better sensitive to prepare their retirement time). In fact this is a consequence of today's form of ages pyramid which is now much more cylindric (and taller) rather than conic (and small). But another fact is that there's not been since long a major social revolution or traumatic war separating them ; the last one was the arrial of HIV/AIDS in the 1980's, but today, HIV/AIDS is concerning all categories of ages. Generations share most of the same problems, needs, and way of life. This means that we can more easily profit from each other forces, fears and weaknesses.

Dogcatcher
Dogcatcher

As Andrew Carnegie is reported to have said, "I don't know much about making steel, but I know how to hire people who do." Therein lies the key difference between being a good manager and a good engineer. Both can be experts at what they do, but they work with different skill sets. When I refer to lower pressure, I am speaking about the reduced pressure one feels when doing a job one enjoys and is good at. A job where you have mastered the skills. In contrast, one is likely to feel tension or increased pressure when required to do tasks seen as unpleasant or for which one has inadequate training. This happens often when technical specialists are given supervisory responsibilities but are not temperamentally suited to being managers.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

That was most likely the PC system that drives the coupon printers at the registers. Catalina has been upgrading their systems, but there are still a few green-screen or monochrome monitors in my stores.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

There are only two sorts of people who can sincerely say something like. "Our people are out greatests assets" One set is appallingly naive.... The other thing to bear in mind is there is no promotion in IT in corporate land. Junior developer to senior developer, is a recognition of (hopefully) useful experience. Senior Developer to Team Leader is a career switch to management.

jk2001
jk2001

This makes me wonder why there was a generation gap. Was it a side effect of a rapidly growing economy in the 1950s?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

careers is going to increase pressure, but so would platforms, languages, domains or disciplines. As far as I can make out techs are given management roles, (or take them) because there's cieling on salary for being a 'mere' tech. IT is two ladders, a tech one and a management one, and in most organisations the management one starts where the tech one ends. As soon as you set up that way, one way or another you are going to lose your most ambitious techs.

ralphclark
ralphclark

There's that, and the rapid change in attitudes of young people during the 1950's may also owe a little to the 400,000+ men of parenting age who didn't come home from the second world war, so that many more young people had to grow up without a father. It might also have had something to do with reaction to the stultifying conformism within the middle classes - and outside the middle classes, issues of social inequality. But teenagers have surely always been rebellious, and the only thing that had changed in the 1950's was that for the first time in living memory it was possible to reject society's existing dictates and still manage to get by somehow. Which means you would be largely right: the game changer was the availability of easy money.

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