How to Bridge Generation Gaps in the Workplace

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 5

A deeper understanding of the differing age-group dynamics is key.

I’m a Gen Xer who spent 10 years freelancing from home. During that time, I began to hear people around me discuss the exasperating details of dealing with Millennials at work. I heard it from family and friends, ex-coworkers, and on TV and social media. The lack of love between Boomers and Millennials became apparent.

When I rejoined the ranks of the 9-to-5 crowd, I was happy to see the younger generations weren’t as terrible as the world had made them out to be. Nevertheless, there are elements that affect how various generations communicate and operate, and in order to get the most out of everyone, discerning those differences and bridging the generation gaps can only help build productivity.

Spectrum of experience

Let’s first look at the composition of the current workforce and some of their prominent traits, according to Paychex:

  • Gen Z (born 1997-2012) – digital natives who may give more weight to personality than physical traits due to how technology has influenced their relationships.
  • Gen Y or Millennials (born 1981-1996) – largest group in today’s workforce are online savvy, as they grew up amid the internet revolution.
  • Gen X (born 1965-1980) – financially smart, hardworking, and self-reliant workers who lived through the advent of personal computers.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) – goal-centric group who grew up in a world without technology, which leads them to prefer in-person interaction.
  • Silent Generation (1928-1945) – raised amid hard economic times, they’ve lived without many of the conveniences of other generations, are careful about finances, and have strong core values.

Looking at the personal experiences of these generations and understanding how they have shaped their professional lives is the first step in learning how to approach each group differently.

Mind the generation gaps

Bristol Myers Squibb is one company that has realized the need for in-depth research on generations. “It’s fascinating when you dig down into the different communication and work styles that exist within the different generations,” says Juli Blanche, VP of talent strategy and talent acquisition at BMS. “Recognizing that this is an issue and thinking about strategies to bring people together and address it is important.”

Technology and communication are two main areas where generations diverge. Older generations often prefer in-person meetings and phone calls to virtual. They also can be hesitant to learn new technology. A silver lining of COVID was that they had no choice but to get onboard with new technology, and that has narrowed the digital gap. “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I think that friction would have continued,” says Blanche. Another generational rift exists when it comes to decision-making. Earlier-in-career generations often eschew hierarchy, while later generations seek it along with the clarity of knowing who owns decisions. BMS’s global leadership team is making this a priority in 2021 by ensuring that decision-making is pushed down to the appropriate levels, that people are held accountable, that it’s clear who has decision rights, and that it’s not about hierarchy but about business outcomes. The goal is to take the bureaucracy out of decision-making.

Common threads

Looking at commonalities instead of focusing on differences among generations can also help. Through its research, BMS has discovered that people want to have an emotional connection to their work, regardless of their age. In its 2020 National Study on Leading Multiple Generations Remotely During the Pandemic, the Center for Generational Kinetics revealed that American workers are putting a premium on honesty, clear communication, and empathy from their managers. Job security also has been flagged as something universally important post-pandemic.

For additional support, BMS created a people in business resource group called CLIMB, which stands for cultivating leadership and innovation for Millennials and beyond. The company also has bi-directional mentoring programs that allow earlier-in-career employees to share innovations with industry veterans and industry veterans to share their experiences with younger colleagues. “It’s all about building bridges between the generations,” says Blanche.

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.