Different Generations – how and why they communicate


Published: 6 Jun 2020


Traditionalists 1900-1945

Often called the ‘Silent’ generation. They were raised by parents that survived the great depression. They experienced hard times growing up. Their values are about: honour, loyalty, compliance, sacrifice, dedication, hard work, good attitude, attendance, practical knowledge and a dedicated work ethic.

What life taught them? You do your duty before you have fun. You can expect others to honour their commitments, and behave responsibly – your word is your bond. You adhere to rules, like to be respected, and individualism is not valued.

Baby Boomers 1945 – 1960

The earliest were war babies, and the later boomers had the one of the biggest change periods in human history to cope with. Idealist, competitive, and polished. ‘Scandalous’ music, anti-establishment, and the beginning of the birth of technology that changed the way we did everything – from the chores around the home and kitchen tasks to communicate with others. Gender roles previously set in stone started to shift.

Boomers in contrast to traditionalists were ambitious, they were about collaboration, equality, personal fulfillment/gratification, personal growth, teamwork, staying youthful. Spending now and worrying about it later. They wanted a flexible way to retire, equal opportunities, and to make a difference in the world. They were rebellious because their parents had it hard and were conservative. Their workplace attitude? Get the job done and be highly visible doing it. No work life balance. They were ‘work to live’ They gave us the 50 hour work week, and being ‘seen’ to be the first in the building and the last out.

You can often tell the generation from the technology you used. My childhood phone recollection was getting tangled up in a long cord whilst hanging out in the hallway on a special phone seat. Later when phones went cordless it blew our minds being able to walk around with them. The first cell phone I remember came with a carry case that looked like a Black and Decker drill box …that was the battery!

I’m a Gen X, and my tech of the day was a treasured Sony Walkman. If your first phone was a Nokia and you then progressed to the first flip open, this probably labels you as an X’er too.

Generation X 1961 – 1980

They were ‘ live to work’ not work to live like the previous generation. They saw the lives their parents had, and wanted more balance in theirs. Their keywords might be skeptical, resourceful and independent. They were motivated by learning, and how quickly they could progress to the next job promotion. They thought up flexi-time and job sharing and cared much less about advancement. They relied on keeping up with technology, and business savvy to stay employed.

X’ers had Fax, answering machines (which were separate to the phone). As teenagers we saw the revolution from tapes to CD’s for music. Floppy discs in the early computers to CD’s. You likely had a pager too if you thought you were important, and as phones progressed you would have had a headset with a bud around your ear to speak into.

We are the most likely of all the generations to build bridges easily to Gen Z – as we too like short and sweet conversations, by email preferably.  Gen X are entrepreneurial by nature another trait of Gen Z – although they would call it personal branding. We led the way for them to set their own rules about how and why they like to work, and for the ‘gig’ economy to flourish.

The Millennials – 1981 – 1995

If your first phone was an i Phone or your first Christmas gift as a tween was an iPod then you are probably a Millennial.  Absorbing a high- tech revolution that moved connection from just a phone to social media, and created a sub-culture where everyone knows everything about one another and nothing is private. They were immersed in Harry Potter, and first generation ‘Sheeples’ on Facebook. Caring more about what was ‘seen’ about their life than their actual life.  They like to avoid face to face communication, but love using inter office intranet and apps. They like a team-oriented workplace,and have no compunction to stay a second after their finish time.

They were raised to feel valued and super positive about themselves. The ‘you can be anything you dream’ generation. Blame them for being entitled by all means….. and then turn a mirror on yourself instantly as a parent and own every time you did something for them, that they could have done for themselves. Sports and anything with competition often became about participation rather than a winner. They had a voice in family decisions.

In NZ in 1980 the divorce law changed and for the first time you could divorce someone for irreconcilable differences. So, divorce rates rose, many kids were bought up in ‘broken’ homes. This high level of divorced parents created independent people who were self-reliant, pragmatic, global thinkers. They had a strong sense of entitlement and were unimpressed with authority.

They believe more than any other generation that output is more important than how you got there. In other words – you don’t need to work 10 hours a day to get the job done. You work with savvy, and efficiency.

They expect to be paid well and won’t do it if they don’t see the value in it. They see no requirement to conform to societal or workplace ‘norms’ just ‘because’. They want to know the rationale behind what you just asked them to do, and will expect reward and recognition for whatever they do.

They dislike work they see as menial and are a ‘brain smart’ generation. This means that they can respond poorly to authority and structure and can lack discipline. On the plus side they are highly educated, a value from their parents. They are also positive and the most resilient of generations as they were likely brought up by single parents. A generation of ‘blended’ families made them tolerant, and team players.

Generation Z – after 1995

Grew up in this high-tech world where speed is king. With instant gratification as their birth right. They are the generation of zero wait time. Instant click through to next episode on Netflix. They have according to the latest research an ‘8 second filter’. This means that they can quickly sort through and assess huge amounts of information. They use Apps to ensure their content and information is bang up to date and rely on curators at all levels of their life to assist in the sorting. Remember they have never seen the world without the internet.

A cashless sub-society. Food delivered to your door. You don’t even have to socialise to go out and find food. You can remain living in your virtual world. They are raised in a screen world and don’t think twice about learning anything from unblocking the sink, to buying shares on You Tube. Don’t take it personally if they find out things from the internet instead of you.

Millennials were accused of lack of focus. Gen Z are planners. They are risk averse and highly inquisitive. They crave financial stability. They are better at self-care. Less likely to smoke or eat meat. They are environmentally conscious by default. They sometimes feel the weight of the previous generations ‘mistakes’.

The differences in communication styles are apparent in the workplace and in homes. Boomers like face to face. X’ers like concise and sticking to short text and emails. Millennials live through social media, and Generation Z like direct and clear communication – they won’t spend the time trying to decipher anything else.

Recent evidence shows that although Z’s prefer to stay digital usually – when dealing with a boomer they prefer face to face communication – likely because boomers don’t speak their language in text and email and still send War and Peace e-mails and not just what they need to know. With an 8 second filter they need to cut straight to the chase .

So, where to next?

With different technical skills, different communications styles, different values, different expectations, how do we find connection between the generations and communication styles? We look for the similarities whilst acknowledging the differences.

Whether we are talking about work or personal environments your greatest aim should be to nurture an inclusive and respectful environment where everyone has a voice. As technology moves on at such speed it is clear that up to five different generations could be working together in a workplace, or existing together in family units.

How do you make this work?

Adapt your style. This is not conceding – it is common sense.

If you are meeting with a boomer you may need to be more formal, a Gen Z will be more relaxed and may appreciate some information upfront to peruse to save time. Micro meetings work for Z. Boomers and Gen X will usually be the people who over run meetings, but for different reasons.

Learn from other generations. Each has its own unique and useful offering. What a boomer or X may seem as rude or too informal, a millennial or Z just sees as logical and efficient. Don’t take it personally. Nobody DID anything to deserve this or create this. It is merely evolution. Technology, society all contributed. It was inevitable.

We can learn from each generation and help them out. If you want my personal opinion on who can ‘save’ us, save the world I would have to say Gen Z. They are the only generation that have returned to direct communication but here is the kicker, it is not because they think it is the best way – it’s because they can’t be bothered to do anything else. It’s logical to them to spend the least amount of effort getting a result – they have grown up in an age of speed.

Generation Z are going to move us from a ‘passive heavy’ society to a more compassionately assertive one….if we can get them out of their room!

How do we help them to save us?

Build a bridge to them whenever you can. Appreciate their succinct and direct communication when it arrives. Eat with them, in real time in real person and have a proper chat…and then listen.

They don’t believe they need the other generations for anything. The only way we are vaguely interesting to them is that we know stuff from the past. Talk to them about how you did/do things or would do things and then stand back in awe as they give you the most logical solution, (that may also seem the weirdest).

Want to learn more? Ask about a Multi-Generational session for your workplace or organisation/group.