Ten years ago I attended a business conference that easily had several thousand participants. I remember how exciting it was, the main stage hosted some incredible speakers and following any given performance or on scheduled breaks the hallways were buzzing with excitement.
One particular talk featured a businessman who discussed investments, retirement accounts, and how to monitor the stock market. It was content rich, and he delivered a very compelling message. While some would label his presentation a sales pitch others were excited to learn more about his methodologies and personal finance management tactics. As he closed his presentation he urged audience members to immediately go to visit his hallway booth where there was a limited supply of additional information and very limited seating for his next full day educational seminar coming to a location near you.
Curious I went to his booth and observed lines of people scurrying to make a purchase. While the conference was generationally diverse, in my estimation, there was no person younger than 45 or 50 years old in that line.
Was this representative of an age difference or generational difference?
One school of thought in the workplace today is that there aren’t any real generational issues, only the same patterns that have repeated themselves over and over again at least since the industrial revolution, and those patterns are about age and not about some nebulous generational malarkey. A different school of thought often comes from workplace generation experts who politely (and sometimes not so much) disagree.
Age differences relate to engagement, decision making, and communication preferences that are based more on age and not so much on societal trends, values and beliefs. For example, a conversation about retirement funds or a 401k balance might be of more interest to those closer to retirement age as compared to those who are just exiting high school or college. Age differences may also come about as physical changes with persons having less energy, less flexibility, or less tolerance for strenuous physical activity making them seek different ways of moving about, sitting versus standing, or even the lifting or moving of objects. In still other examples age differences might be represented in personal debt such as paying for college education or making the 15th payment of a mortgage loan as compared to the the 359th (30 year mortgage). There are many things that are connected to age that are not necessarily related different values, beliefs, or societal dynamics.
Generational differences are much more likely to be connected to life experiences, emotional connections grounded in traditions, technology (or lack of), or socio-economic trends. For example, earlier generations might have little or no desire to listen to music through ear buds, perhaps preferring a more traditional method such as a device that broadcasts music through speakers of which anyone within a close range can also hear. This simple example is probably more reflective of a generational difference (rooted in technology) rather than age. Consider that if our hearing weakens with age the ear buds may actually be a better alternative but are typically trendier with younger people. Generational differences develop from societal trends during a given period of time, what felt accepted, respectful, or to be common practice. These differences might also have roots in other factors such as parental values and even in rural as compared to urban living.
In the workplace people deal with both age differences and generational differences, but the generational differences are much more complex and are not as simple as the much easier defined and navigated difference in age. Of course in any workplace we need to be very cautious of how we manage and discuss any differences in age so we are certain not to discriminate.
Are generational differences in the workplace real? Yes, and they are not improved or navigated without skillful communication, leadership, and respect.
Dennis E. Gilbert is a business consultant, speaker (CSPTM), and coach that specializes in helping businesses and individuals accelerate their leadership, their team, and their success. He is the author of the newly released book, Forgotten Respect, Navigating A Multigenerational Workforce. Reach him through his website at DennisEGilbert.com or by calling +1 646.546.5553.
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