Communication, Learning and Age Diversity in the Workplace

Posted by Elizabeth Pearce on Mon, Nov 07, 2011 @ 01:26 PM

Never in history have there been four distinct demographic group in the workplace.  These groups are different in their experiences, values and beliefs. Today’s managers are challenged to help each group get what they need from their jobs and their workplace relationships. The age diversity in the workplace results in complexity when trainers are forced to deal with different communication and learning styles of these groups.

We believe that Age Diversity is going to be one of the “hot” areas for Human Resources professionals in this century. This is the fourth of six blogs on this topic. You can subscribe (look to the column on the right) to get future updates. The four generations, of course, are Baby Boomers, Millennials(GenY), the Traditionalists(sometimes called The Silent Generation) and GenerationX. Each of these demographic groups has different touch points and is at different stages of their work and life cycle. For a clear definition of each group, and the major life experiences of its members, scroll down to the prior blog or check out our whitepaper, Four Generations in the Workplace

But the generational differences are perhaps most pronounced in the preferred way to receive and share information. Keep in mind as we blog about age diversity in the workplace, the following are generalities and your co-workers and colleagues are individuals who may or may not fit the generalizations.

  • Traditionalists prefer formal, prose-style printed material. They are willing to accept a ‘delay’ in receipt of the information, as long as it seems reasonable. When sharing information, they will reach for the phone or try to talk face to face.
  • Baby Boomers, by contrast, prefer a more semi-formal prose style. They would prefer memos or handbooks to be bullet pointed, but they still want all the information. When sharing information, their first thought is email, but a phone call or a meeting are good alternatives. Most are willing to use on-line tools to reference information.
  • Generation X prefers an irreverent writing style that highlights quickly the main points they need to know. These workers are very quick to seek information on-line, have distain for unnecessary meetings, preferring email, wikis and intranet bulletin boards. They expect to be able to find the information they need quickly and at all times.
  • Millennials are the digital natives. They are used to being continuously connected and prefer images and charts that catch the eye and rapidly convey information. They expecct information to be available when they want it (ideally, five minutes ago) and will search for it. When new information is sent to them, they prefer it to come in short, frequent bursts.  It is helpful to remember that the oldest Millennials (now 31) were in their mid-teens when Google was launched.

These trends show up in interesting ways. The chart on the left is based on the study, “The Future @ Work” by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd.

Age Diversity and online learning

On-line contributions

We have broken out each generation, by willingness to contribute to a wiki, a bulletin board or other corporate knowledge management system. The blue bars show the percentage of employees willing to start new topics, ask questions or initiate discussion on bulletin boards. Notice that Millennials and Gen X-ers are strongest at initiating new topics, with over 45% of Millennials starting new discussions.

Here is an upside to age diversity, notice the brown bars: employees over 65 are the most likely to contribute additional content once a topic has been initiated.  This confirms that Traditionalistsand Baby Boomers in the workplace exhibit what sociologist call generativity, a desire to share what they have learned and their life experience.  51% of employees in both groups contribute content to intranet, knowledge sharing systems.

The green bars represent the percentage of each demographic group willing to look for information on-line, even if they are unwilling to contribute new information.

To summarize, 64% of Traditionalists are willing to use on-line information sharing tools, as are 67% of Baby Boomers.

The younger generations are more comfortable with technology, resulting in usage of on-line tools.  Gen X-ers trail Millennials slightly, with 85% of Gen X-ers and 90% of Millennials using corporate wikis, bulletin boards or other corporate knowledge management tools.

Age Diversity and Internet
One of the challenges to age diversity in the workplace is shown by the black bars.  These represent the percentage of employees unwilling to use corporate Intranet sites for knowledge gathering and sharing.

For organizations, the black bars imply a serious challenge: One third of all older workers, aged 50+) will not use an on-line tool to seek information.

Later this week we will blog about the implications for mentoring created by these differences – and solutions to the challenges created by these communication and learning preferences. Again, we have consolidated all of these blogs in a single whitepaper.

We appreciate your reading this blog.  Please consider signing up for future updates, via email or RSS, and follow us on Twitter @MentrResources.

Topics: Millennials, Baby Boomers, Traditionalists, Generation X, Age Diversity in the Workplace, Generational Diversity in the Workforce