Cultivating an Awareness of Generational Differences for Effective Communication

By A. Embry Burrus and Laura B. Willis
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Laura_Willis
Authors of Professional Communication in Speech Language Pathology: How to Write, Talk, and Act Like a Clinician, Third Edition

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Popular literature is filled with descriptions of the term, “generational differences,” and for good reason. There are distinct differences among individuals based on when they were born, and the political, social, and economic environment in which they have grown up. This post will address the various communication styles of individuals who are currently in the workforce. Although there are differences among the generations, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, there are also similarities; namely, most people have the same basic core values: “family, integrity, achievement, love, competence, happiness, self-respect, wisdom, balance and responsibility.”

The Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 1994 (estimate), represents a cohort distinct from their parents of the Baby Boom generation (1945–1964 [estimate]), and their predecessors, Generation X (1961–1981 [estimate]). Millennials have been generally described as optimistic, team-oriented, high-achieving rule-followers. In addition, aptitude test scores for this group have risen across all grade levels, and with the higher aptitude has come a greater pressure to succeed. It is noteworthy to mention that Millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. As of 2012, individuals of Hispanic origin accounted for 26.9% of the 21-and-under population (http://www.census.gov), and Asians accounted for 25.6%. Interestingly enough, this generation has been described as more accepting of diversity than past generations.

Research has shown that children of the Millennial Generation were encouraged to “befriend” their parents, as well as their parents’ friends, and as teens they became comfortable expressing their opinions to adults; therefore, they are not hesitant to challenge authority, assert themselves, or ask for preferential treatment. Studies have shown that Millennials view strong relationships with supervisors to be a crucial factor in their satisfaction with their role as supervisee, and that they expect communication with supervisors to be frequent, positive, and affirming.

In today’s society, we are taught that to be successful, we need to be self-confident. Some of the characteristics assigned to the Millennials are that they are self-assured, assertive, and perfectionistic, which, when used constructively, can be very positive attributes. It is important that Millennials are aware that to members of the older generations, this can sometimes be misconstrued as overconfidence. If a supervisor or colleague perceives you to be overconfident, this could create a number of opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding. You do not want to communicate to others that you have more ambition than skill, or that you already “know it all” and therefore do not need or want their input. We often advise our students to be mindful that if they are perfectionists, they should not allow this to morph into fear of failure. We remind them that it is okay to admit that they do not know something, and it is much better to do so than to seem falsely competent.

Members of Generation X, the cohort immediately preceding the Millennials, were shaped by many factors. Generation Xers learned independence, autonomy, and self-reliance early in life. They were the first to be described as “latch-key” kids, and they often took care of themselves and their siblings. They grew up in a time when divorce was commonplace, and therefore ended up in single-family or blended-family homes. As a result, they have been described as being more accepting of themselves and others, and embracing of diversity. Members of this generational cohort have been described as valuing flexibility and creativity, as well as encouraging of individualism.

According to Jean Scheid (2010), “Gen Xers aren’t afraid of technology and love new gadgets, even if it takes a little longer than a Millennial to understand how it all works. Their communication style is one brief and to the point, and e-mail is their preferred method.” Gen Xers desire feedback from supervisors and do not hesitate to offer feedback in return. On the other hand, if not kept in the loop, they may become upset and feel left out.

The “Boomers,” as they are often referred to as, make up approximately 29% of the U.S. population and 50% of the workforce. The oldest members of the Baby Boom generation are now mostly retired, and in less than 15 years, one in five Americans (the youngest members) will be over the age of 65. Those who were born at the end of this generational cohort (1960–1964), however, are still a large part of the workforce and may still embody some general characteristics used to describe this group: focused on hard work, ambitious, competitive, and believers in equality.

To summarize, it is important to always show respect by communicating clearly and demonstrating that you acknowledge what your communication partner feels is important, regardless of position or age difference. This does not mean that individuals across the generations cannot understand each other, or learn from each other; it simply means that we must take into consideration that we may have different ways of looking at the same issue. Being part of a diverse workplace may be challenging to some, yet it can provide an environment that fosters rich personal as well as professional growth.

References

Deal, J. (2015). Ten principles for working across generations [Podcast]. Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved from http://insights.ccl.org/multimedia/podcast/10-principles-for-working-across-generations/

Schied, J. (2010). Types of communication styles: Bridging the communication gap. Bright Hub. Retrieved from http://www.brighthub.com/office/home/articles/76498.aspx

U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Current Population Survey, 2012 Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement. Washington, DC: Author.