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Generations at Work, or Stereotyping?
Submitted by Karen Carleton on August 24th, 2012
Most people have heard of the Generations at Work discussion theme centered on how individuals’ age differences determine how people act in work and learning. I’ve seen many seminars/articles on this topic (since 2005) and haven’t seen a positive result from the “Generations at work” seminars, articles and discussions. To me, it’s tantamount to stereotyping. It neatly slots people into convenient categories with (presumed) behaviors. There is not always a good fit. For example, my mother is a “Traditionalist” and a computer-savvy 71 year old who works full-time. She does not fit the mould for her age group. I have also met a few young people who shunned computers (rare as it is). While there are common themes often seen with certain age groups related to learning and work behaviors, it’s best to avoid generalizations.
Of greater value would be a session on this topic that opened up the dialogue about effective communication methods (e.g., pairing younger supervisors with much older supervisors for reverse mentoring on social media in exchange for role mentoring). The bottom line seems to be work expectation clarity. The same holds true for the training room – avoid painting a certain type of learner with the same brush, or you could end up unknowingly facilitating a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e., people act like you expect them to).
Challenges with age and ability in work and learning settings have always existed (or co-existed) in classrooms and workplaces. Only in recent years have we legislated fairness and has various differences among staff become more prevalent? This concept of “the adaptive dimension” (accommodating differences) takes me back to Teacher’s College (1994). All trainers/teachers need to adjust their methods or materials accordingly to respect and meet individualized learners’ unique needs as best they can in a group setting. In this light, it’s hard to see “The Generations” as a new, ground-breaking or value-added concept.
Canada’s long history of accepting and integrating cross-cultural, linguistic and other differences into a “Multicultural Mosaic” (as opposed to a “Melting Pot”) has become one of the distinct features of the Great White North. The acceptance and celebration of diversity – in the workplace, the classroom, and society in general – will continue to pave the way to economic success through respectful appreciation, cooperation and collaboration in years to come.
Appreciating cultural and other differences at work or in learning settings ironically helps us see how we are each unique. If you “Think different” rather than encouraging homogeneity, you open the doors to organizational innovation that’s critical to surviving and thriving in a dynamic and rapidly changing world. Learning to appreciate different perspectives, experience levels and skills of all staff, including those of different age groups, aids group cohesion. McDonald’s has benefited from standardization of its processes and practices for a uniform product, no matter which of its locations you go to. With people, appreciating difference leads to understanding it.
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seems to agree – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Supervisors would be well advised to do the same and not presume that a “Millennial” employee is being rude or evasive by texting his supervisor a message instead of calling. Providing clear expectations and making an effort to find a middle ground at work enables respectful communications for working towards mutual goals. Focusing on the ties that bind is more beneficial than concentrating on “Generational Differences”, which may not be valid and can do a disservice by painting all members of an age group with the same brush.
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