Bridging the age divide: Resolving intergenerational conflict at work

Jun 25, 2024

4 mins

Bridging the age divide: Resolving intergenerational conflict at work

Do you ever work or socialize with people who are much older or much younger than you? For most people, the answer is no. As age segregation has increased in our social lives, it is also on the rise in the professional sphere. It’s perfectly understandable—people often stay close with friends from school or colleagues who entered the workforce when they did, which can create intuitive-seeming age groupings.

It’s only natural that we find more in common with people near our age. While there are entire industries where older people are not particularly present—think advertising, entertainment, and tech—when different generations do overlap in the workplace, certain work habits can cause friction between people of different age groups based on the respective norms each finds natural. However, that difference can also lead to an interesting equilibrium.

Intergenerational programs were once described as “vehicles for the purposeful and ongoing exchange of resources and learning among older and younger generations for individual and social benefits.” The characteristics essential to the success of such programs establish new social roles and/or new perspectives for young and old participants alike. Additionally, they promote increased awareness and understanding between the young and old generations and raise self-esteem for both.

Adapting to an age-diverse workforce

Keely Antonio, a leadership development consultant and founder of FeelSwell Experiences, notes that “we are witnessing the convergence of five generations in the workforce.” Despite the overlap of these groups, Antonio points out that individuals are influenced by a wide variety of factors well beyond their generational cohort, such as personality, background, and life experiences.

Dana Dowdell of Boss Consulting HR agrees. “Intergenerational dynamics pose challenges in the way that any other employee differences do—employees come to work with various viewpoints, values, experiences and world views.” She also wants to highlight the value of employees’ differences: “Diversity of thought, worldview, and experiences, when shared respectfully, can create exceptional experiences at work.”

Accepting different approaches

Antonio notes that “younger generations, such as Gen Z and Millennials, may prefer more flexible work arrangements and value work-life balance, while older generations like Baby Boomers and Gen X may prioritize face-to-face interactions and traditional work structures.” These generational disparities around workplace norms have been further heightened by the rise of hybrid/work-from-home culture that has solidified its place as a professional reality in the years following the pandemic.

“If I say what quality is most misunderstood per generation, all I’m doing is perpetuating stereotypes,” warns Chris Justino, an organizational psychologist. “That said, young people have a perspective looking into the future, and older generations tend to hold their perspective from the past.” He believes that there is wisdom in experience, but still, unhelpful assumptions can remain based solely on that past experience. What worked for one person when they were 21 may not necessarily work for someone who is 21 today. The key is not to create a one-size-fits-all approach based on previous circumstances.

Refraining from generational stereotyping

Looking at the problem from a wider scope, Justino believes that most generation assumptions “start with the idea of a person, rather than the person themselves. This of course only exasperates and strengthens into a complete clash and/or shutdown of the relationship.” For example, if you have 10 employees in your section and two of them ignore each other, “you have a broken chain and the start of a workplace that can quickly become toxic.”

To foster understanding and collaboration among different age groups, showing curiosity and openness is the best way forward. “Having a general expectation that employees will ‘figure it out’ will not work,” Dowdell emphasizes. “I think generalizations are dangerous and the most misunderstood quality is that there are employees that do not fit what we expect [from their generation]. I’m a millennial, but I do not exhibit a lot of the qualities that people assume exist with that generation. To that point, seeing employees as individuals instead of as part of a generation or a group is the key.”

Communication is a necessary bridge

Justino points out that attempting to rectify existing clashes may go nowhere when collaboration attempts fail, or when employees don’t authentically try to fix the matter at hand. He adds that there’s often a difference between what people say they intend to do and what they actually do. While organizations love to use words like “collaboration, openness, communication, cohesion,” etc., there has to be action behind the buzzwords. Genuine follow-through and effort matter; they can’t just exist at the surface level.

He also notes that “the real opportunity lies in recognizing that our thoughts and feelings may not always be accurate.” Adding that self-reflection is essential for rectifying misunderstandings. Pointing to others’ shortcomings is not productive. Acknowledging one’s own flaws in perception is “game-changing” and “provides a humility-driven foundation for growth and collaboration.”

The importance of mentorship

Antonio sees a different vulnerability worth examining. A recent report found that 73% of Gen Z individuals express feeling lonely or misunderstood at work. “Younger employees may bring fresh ideas and technological expertise,” Antonio says, but the isolation this younger cohort has felt highlights the importance of “providing opportunities for cross-generational mentorship and learning. By pairing employees from different generations in mentorship programs or collaborative projects, organizations can facilitate knowledge sharing, skill development, and mutual respect.” She also advocates for “initiatives such as diversity training, affinity groups, and inclusive leadership development programs.”

Ultimately, Justino believes that there’s always room for growth, regardless of where you are in your career. “We pretend that what we know, from years of experience, what is right and correct,” he says. “But…change is constant, and the only thing we truly know is that we do not know everything.”

Key takeaways to avoid intergenerational conflict

Age crossover was commonplace in the past—and the previous state of things can comfortably exist again provided the right circumstances. Acting in good faith, and creating an environment in which different approaches can be shared without discrimination, enables us to better understand each other.

  • Taking initiative and responsibility is important, whether leading a team or self-directed projects, but so is embracing flexibility and knowing that other perspectives have value, be they based on long-term experience or contemporary thinking.
  • Problem-solving is about identifying challenges and finding effective solutions, but it’s also about looking inward, not just blaming the other.
  • Listening to the other and avoiding assumptions based on where they are in their career is the most fluid way to allow for smooth collaborations.

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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