The more I think about some communication issues at work, the more I reflect on whether there are serious — and often unexplored — differences between age cohorts or formal generations that contribute to workplace angst.
Consider the following (very generalized) differences between people in my general age group (25-35) and those in my parents’ age group (45-65):
- Safety & Security. For the older crowd, security and risk mitigation is the name of the game. Fiscal prudence is paramount, and aversion to any sort of risk or expense — even something as relatively trivial as the fuel cost of a pleasant drive through the countryside — is a top priority. When I tell people about my sailing plans, for example, the single most reliable predictor of whether I’ll be considered an idiot is the age of the person I’m speaking with. My friends and younger family members tend to understand and even support my goal; older friends, co-workers and family members think I’m just "going through a phase" or something. For older people, the relative security of home equity, weekends at home, and dining in has become so normative that any other perspective seems strange. For me, I can’t think of anything more soul-crushing than sitting in a suburban home watching TV for the rest of my life, and a lot of people in my age bracket tend to think similarly. Whether this an age thing or a generational thing (or a little of both) is an open question, though.
- Communication. I grew up in the original e-mail generation; I am much more comfortable on IM or e-mail than I am on the phone. In fact, I loathe the telephone — the idea that someone can just interrupt me at will, unannounced and unscheduled, for reasons I may or may not welcome, burns my ass. Which is probably why I screen more than 90 percent of my calls, at home or in the office. I’m not alone, though. Most of my friends communicate with me by e-mail (or, occasionally, text message). Duane in California, and Stacie in Grand Rapids, are the only ones I really spend any phone minutes on. Yet the mistrust for e-mail as a communication tool among our more seasoned citizens is endemic. The 50-somethings at work treat e-mail as an administrative convenience instead of a legitimate mode of meaningful communication; they are quick to identify the pitfalls of e-mail and insist on "face-to-face" conversation, yet they give short shrift to the very real benefits of e-mail over direct or phone discussion.
- Respect for Authority. The older one gets, the more one tends to defer unquestioningly to a higher-up. For myself, I don’t care who I’m talking to; if a person is wrong, I’ll make that clear. If I think a request from someone higher up the totem pole is inappropriate, I’ll challenge the request. Repeatedly. Older folk, however, seem to think that conformance with a boss’s request is essential, even if they think the boss is mistaken. It distills, in a sense, to a radically different understanding of what constitutes insubordination. The mature generation looks at disagreement or challenge to authority as inherently insubordinate; younger workers place their loyalty in achieving a better final product. The old "process versus outcome" issue, I guess.
- Appearance. It seems about age 40 that a barrier hits, between those who give a damn about how others look, and those who don’t. Personally, I don’t care whether my waiter or banker or nurse has multiple piercings or visible tattoos or nonstandard hair coloring or alternative apparel; I understand that these things don’t speak to the competence or character of the person who manifests them. I don’t know of many people in my age bracket (perhaps only Tony) who actively pays attention to such externalities. Yet older co-workers and family members look at them as being a sign, to some degree, of degeneration. Curiously, the older people get, the less they care about physical form, though.
I think this is one subject that deserves greater air time in professional settings.