A Slacker and a Snowflake walk into a bar…
Recently, the Guilford Merchants Association (an excellent business resource in our area) hosted a presentation by Kit Welchlin called Generational Communication: Bringing Out the Best in Each Other. Since our team members are from different generations and work together, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to attend. Jan Badger (our Studio Manager) and Jiyoung Park (one of our summer interns) attended together and we asked them to talk about their impressions and what they learned. The presentation was fast-paced, chock-full of useful information and a good review of communication strategies and rules. The talk also focused on how generational gaps can affect relationships and communication within the workplace. Surprisingly, despite being 20 years apart in age, Jan and Jiyoung had some very similar reactions to the presentation:
JAN: I left the presentation more perplexed by the issue than enthused to put his recommendations into practice. I think my apprehension is partially due to the generation I’m in and partially because of what I do for a living. I’m a Gen Xer and I live up to the stereotype. I’m not ashamed to admit that in the mid-90’s I rocked the floral babydoll dress, black choker, pixie haircut and Doc-knocks. I was an art student, for crying out loud! On a good day I was compared to Winona Ryder by more than a few people. I’m self-reliant, skeptical, creative and snarky. I was one of the first people on board when Millennial-bashing became all the rage, which is ironic considering that my generation was labelled “slackers” by our elders not that long ago. Well, like, 25 years ago. Really? Doesn’t feel like that long. *heavy sigh*
JIYOUNG: I think some people might be surprised that I am split between Millennials and Generation Z since I am working in three places and doing freelance work in order to travel to Europe. I constantly challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone so I will be well-rounded and knowledgeable in the creative field. I respect my elders. I believe that their knowledge and experience allow us to look back to the past and provide solutions to our present-day problems. I am self-motivated so I don’t like people who tell me what to do unless it is necessary. I would rather collaborate. I respect my co-workers regardless of their status, age, background, and race, so I expect them to respect me as well. I love getting critiques on my work because feedback is the key to improving myself. I prefer talking to people face-to-face over communicating via electronic devices. So, I don’t know how much I fit into what they say about Millennials and Generation Z.
JAN: There are plenty of contradictory messages about the differences between the generations that appear to be widely accepted. A quick Google search will show lots of comparisons between my grandparents’ generation, my parents’ generation (the Baby Boomers), Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z. But most of the focus has been on the Millennials—how they’re totally going to save the world. How they’re total losers who can’t survive without their helicopter parents. How they’re super-cool and tech-savvy so you NEED to attract them to your company because you absolutely will NOT survive without them. How they’re delicate snowflakes, entitled, uberbrats. How can one generation have such opposing opinions of them?
JIYOUNG: Sadly, I have gotten many negative comments about my generation—that we don’t have the motivation to work hard and won’t take risks or challenge ourselves. According to the stereotypes that Mr. Welchlin mentioned in his presentation, we can’t stick to one job for a long period of time, are dependent on our parents’ money, and are too optimistic. What I hear the most is that Millennials are addicted to technology. I have also heard many young people complaining about the lifestyle of older generations. According to a young generation, an old generation is conservative, commanding, slow, inexperienced in technology, and boring.
JAN: I agree, we are super-boring. Actually, the stereotypes change based on who you’re talking to. Baby Boomers tend to think Millennials are a positive force for social change, just the best thing since peace, love and rock-n-roll. Millennials see the civil rights warriors of the Boomer generation as superheroes. Gen Xers are less impressed with both. It’s no wonder that we’re cynical. We’re a generation of latchkey kids, left to fend for ourselves while our parents were working long hours climbing the corporate ladder. That’s why Gen Xers pushed hard for work/life balance—something that Millennials have taken to an extreme that some older co-workers see as pushing their luck. After all, we paid our dues in our twenties and see their demands as a symptom of an overreaching, entitled mentality. So while Millennials and Boomers are all caught up in a 21st century love-in, Gen Xers just fold our arms and roll our eyes.
JIYOUNG: Sounds like people tend to agree on our strengths but disagree on our flaws. However, I cannot agree with these statements that people have made about both young and old generations. To me, it is not only incorrect but also unpleasant to listen to. Generalizations can be correct and helpful to understand differences among groups, but it is dangerous to judge people based on stereotypes because it can cause conceit and bias.
JAN: Personally, I think all this talk about the different generations and their characteristics is mostly a load of bunk. Seriously. The 20-year timespan in which you were born determines who you are about as much as your astrological sign. Not to say that what took place in society during our formative years doesn’t have an impact on the way we see the world, but there are so many more influences that shape who we are—our upbringing, the political leanings (or lack thereof) of our parents, our religious or cultural background, our birth order, our education level, whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, if we played sports or a musical instrument…
JIYOUNG: Exactly. There are so many variables that can result in “extraordinary” characteristics for individuals. We have an instinct to classify everything in order to survive by knowing what to avoid. In today’s society, categorizing has become a tool to divide people into groups and apply stereotypes to each group. We categorize people based on race, age, religion, and economic background. We tend to differentiate ourselves from others with self-importance and build a bond within the groups. I personally think that it is okay to experience cultural differences; however, it shouldn’t lead to tension. The tension between generations develops when people look at a situation solely in their perspective and don’t make an effort to understand different generational mindsets. It is difficult for me to respect people who look down on me based on existing stereotypes when they don’t even know me.
JAN: Not to mention that who we are and our attitude towards work and the future has more to do with our stage in life and tends to change over time. If Millennials are dreamers who have been disappointed with work life, then they can join the club. Most of us have discovered that “adulting” isn’t as awesome as we expected it to be. But while their expectations may have been raised to an even more unrealistic summit than the rest of us, most of the Millennials that I know have adjusted well. And the good news is that once the disappointment fades away and you get a more realistic view of what’s possible, that’s when true optimism and focus sets in. This is the stage in life where the real magic happens—but it also takes time and patience to get here. Simon Sinek talks about this in a video I saw on YouTube. He was talking about addiction to technology but he points out that it takes a long time to make an impact. Older workers need to remember what it’s like to still be figuring things out and be more willing to mentor the next generation and younger workers need to remember that, even though we may not be as tech-savvy as they are, we still have a lot of experience that they can learn from.
JIYOUNG: Most of the people my age want to be mentored, but we need to make an effort to develop a healthy relationship with our coworkers if we want to learn from them. The best way to make that happen comes from basic communication skills: smile, listen, and respect. Make sure to bring a positive energy to your workplace, listen to what your coworkers say, and respect their opinions and cultures. Everyone is unique so don’t let your biases ruin a relationship. Explore various cultures by communicating with people from different generations. At the end of the day, your workplace will be full of creative souls where different generations collaborate and bring success to your company.
JAN: Absolutely! Every soul is just that—an individual, dare I say a unique snowflake? Gen Xers are all about individualism, you know, so let’s stop setting up an expectation of how someone will behave based on some generational label that has been assigned to them by an incredibly inexact science. If we want to bring out the best in each other, whether it’s an employee, coworker or customer, we must take the time to get to know that person, their strengths and weaknesses, goals and failures. Employers and employees should be clear about their expectations and considerate with their demands. If you can’t define how your request will benefit both of you, it’s unfair to ask for it. It’s the same with our clients, we can’t help them until we take the time to get to know who they really are, what keeps them up at night, what they get super jazzed about. Of course, this takes more time, but it’s totally worth it and will save a lot of trouble, headaches and resources in the end.
JIYOUNG: That’s a good point. You’re so smart.
JAN: You see what we have going on here? Gen X is joining the love-in.
This is what communication really is—don’t talk until you’ve listened. Seek to understand the other person. That’s something all generations should be able to agree on.
Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget. Contact Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jiyoung Park, Intern/Challenger and Explorer at Fifth Letter. Her explorations in culture and art result in her infinite imagination.