How to Communicate Across Generations

Jun 2, 2010
7 Min Read

In every talk I give at a corporation or conference on intergenerational communication, someone raises their hand and says that people of different generations don’t vary in their styles and that it’s all in my head.  If you’re tempted to think that, here are some examples of the types of remarks I’m always hearing:


Born before 1945, they’re the loyalists, the ones who spent a lifetime at the company and expect to be rewarded with a Rolex:

How can I help YOU?

Flexibility is a code word for less work getting done.

If I’m not yelling at you, you’re doing fine.

Baby Boomers

Born 1945-63, they’re the hippies and the yuppies, the ones who worshiped the Beatles and clawed their way to the top:

I paid my dues to get more money, a better title, and a swankier office – what are you going to do?

You’ll get your feedback, that’s what annual performance reviews are for.

We’ve been in business for 50 years, we must be doing something right.

Generation X

Born 1964-79: they’re the loners, the ones who learned to be self-reliant while their parents left them with latchkeys:

Company loyalty – what’s that?

I can manage my own career, thank you very much.

Give me the skills or give me death.


Born 1980-95, they’re the techies, the ones whose parents taught them they were special and entitled:

Sorry to interrupt, but you haven’t told me how I’m doing in the last hour.

Let’s cut out the red tape and cut it out now.

How can YOU help ME?

You can see that when it comes to communication, we’ve come full circle from the customer-oriented traditionalists, who wanted to know how they could help you, to the self-focused Millennials, who want to know what an organization and its people can do for them.

Adapting your style to suit the different perspectives of the multi-generational workforce will increase your team’s productivity and support a stronger sense of loyalty and positive morale.  Here are some ideas to start you off:


  • Empower traditionalists to make their own decisions by encouraging them to “trust their gut” and supporting them in whatever they determine is the best course.
  • Have deference for their years of experience and listen.  After all, what has happened in the past is the best predictor of what will happen in the future.
  • Talk to traditionalists about their learnings and their long-term plans. Don’t assume they have one foot out the door just because they’re what used to be retirement age.
  • Provide constructive feedback as you would to any other employee – they can and should learn new tricks.


  • Give recognition whenever possible.  Acknowledge Boomers’ contributions and be cognizant about implementing their suggestions.
  • Encourage them to mentor younger colleagues and learn new skills and technologies so that they can continue to hone their potential.
  • Allow them to experiment with their jobs.  Many Boomers are getting antsy and want to do work that’s different and more personally meaningful.
  • Respect the status quo.  Boomers feel that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Don’t insist on change for its own sake.


  • Share your unique expertise.  X-ers are interested in amassing as much training and knowledge as possible.
  • Look to X-ers as team leaders.  They have been chomping at the bit to be out of the Boomers’ shadow for years and are ready for their time to shine.
  • Use technology to make team meetings easier.  Many X-ers have families to think about, and they appreciate you keeping their necessary work/life balance in mind.
  • Don’t block their path to decision makers.  X-ers just want to get the work done and can get impatient with turf wars and too many bureaucratic channels.


  • Take Millennial employees out to lunch and inquire about their career goals and aspirations.  They want to feel like you care.
  • Explain to Millennials why things are done a certain way in your organization, educate them on who they need to talk to to get things done, and spell out “unwritten” rules to ensure compliance.
  • Have an open-door policy in which you are available for Millennial team members to ask questions and receive guidance.  Provide constructive feedback in real time.
  • In the event of a crisis, don’t shut them out because of their status as junior team members.  Millennials love the apprentice approach and will learn so much from having the opportunity to work by your side.

What strategies have you used to facilitate better cross-generational communication in your workplace?

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