Understanding & Closing the Generation Gap


In the context of art and design,  minimalism describes a technique in which the artist uses just a few simple  elements to create a dramatic effect. Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe adopted the motto “less is more” to describe his tactic of arranging all visual and functional elements of a building to serve multiple purposes, thus creating a sense of extreme simplicity.

The mindset involved with minimalist design is the same mindset an organization must take when approaching the generation gap among its employees. Specifically, it must look at each generation’s learning and communication styles and how those styles can complement each other.

Identifying the Generation Gap
This generation gap describes the sociological and psychological differences between older and younger cohorts. Currently there are three generations in the workplace: baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X, born between 1965 and1984; and millennials, also known as Generation Y, born between 1985 and 2010. (The years defining each generation are somewhat fluid, depending on which source you consult.)

The biggest gap exists between millennials and their predecessors. Millennials grew up in a time where everything they needed to know or wanted to know was at their fingertips thanks to the advancement of technology. This constant need to know, do and want more has led millennials to carry a skill set that is infinitely scalable and different in comparison to previous generations.

When you take a minimalistic mindset, you can see a millennial’s hardware — natural capabilities — and software — learned experience — are fundamentally different than that of baby boomers or Generation X. A millennial’s hardware includes the ability to use technology efficiently and absorb information at a rapid speed. However, due to their young age, they have no software or experiential knowledge. Millennials are an often-underestimated group that can easily gain that knowledge through working with their baby-boomer and Gen-X colleagues.

IBM & Microsoft
To understand the hardware and software analogy, think back to the 1980s when IBM and Microsoft created a computing empire. IBM had the hardware, while Microsoft possessed the software. Each had something that made the other stronger.

IBM first approached Microsoft in 1980 to discuss the possibility of Microsoft creating an operating system for an IBM computer. Out of this collaboration, Microsoft built MS-DOS, which became the operating system in one of the first widely-adopted home computers. Microsoft had the software or experience — most similar to baby boomers and Gen X. IBM had the hardware or the technology and capability to process the software — most similar to millennials. By working together, they created a product that dominated the category.

Closing the Gap
Once you’ve fully understood the differences, you can address how your organization builds a level of complementary compatibility between each generation’s hardware and software. In order to build this compatibility, three steps need to be addressed:

1) Start mentoring: Mentorship helps hardware and software function together. Millennials have a desire to learn as much as possible; however, they typically prefer an informal versus formal learning structure. Digiday recently posted “What Millennials Want: Mentorship,” which addresses several reasons why millennials want to be mentored. Speaking from the millennial side of the conversation, we understand and realize that baby boomers and Generation X have the software, or experience, that we can benefit from. We look up to our older colleagues and want discover ways in which we can learn from them. However, we don’t need to be instructed step-by-step on how to get to the next stage. We need advice, understanding and opportunities to build our experience and reach the next level.

There is no better way to address the generation gap than to set up a mentorship program within your company. Pair individuals based on interests and personality. It’s important for a company to inspire curiosity not just among millennials but among baby boomers and Gen X as well. There are numerous learning opportunities for all generations. And the best way to create those opportunities is regular interaction and teamwork.

2) Provide self-learning resources: In order for the hardware and software to be in sync, all parties involved must work at a natural pace. Because millennials grew up with technology at their fingertips, they tend to be more comfortable with that technology changing. Millennials tend to adapt to change very easily and work at a much faster pace than other cohorts. Stephanie Padgett is assistant professor of strategic communications at the University of Missouri and director of media, research and operations for Mojo Ad, the student-staffed agency that specializes in the youth and young adult (YAYA) market. According to Padgett, employers can leverage millennials’ technological expertise and eagerness to learn.

“One thing employers don’t embrace about millennials is the fact that they have a capability to be self-learners. Employers instead put millennials into a box that requires step a, step b and step c. What employers should do is say to their millennial employees, ‘here are the tools, and I am going to let you work, experiment and learn as fast as you can.’ That’s also a reason why millennials often leave a company; because it’s too slow for them and they want to see progress. Employers need to allow millennials to take the strength they have and run with it.”

Employers must encourage self-learning to accommodate millennials’ need to learn independently at their own pace. In order for this to be successful, employers must make the necessary tools, resources and time accessible.

3) Recognize unconventional career paths: Exposure allows for the hardware and software to fit together like a puzzle, seamlessly and without force. As stated earlier, millennials have a desire to quickly learn new information. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mesh with how companies handle new hires. Throw the old training methods out the door and start fresh with opportunities to self-learn and open exposure to finding the best fit for each specific person with the company. Encourage employees to grow their own career, even if that means switching departments a time or two during the process. Remember, change is natural and often a good thing.

By addressing these three steps, you will be able to narrow the generation gap with the possibility of closing it completely. In the next year, I challenge organizations to take a minimalistic approach to the generation gap in order to make a winning combination within your company.

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Sarah Ungar
Sarah Ungar

Sarah runs Empower's marketing initiatives - it's her job to make sure our readers know the latest from Empower. Always excited to share her new favorite news articles, Sarah's enthusiasm for sharing is only rivaled by her love of pop music.