THE BLOG
02/06/2014 05:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

An Honest Discussion About the Generation Gap Starts With Finding Common Ground

The topic of a growing generation gap is like the tide at the beach -- it comes in, it goes out. But everyone now and then the waves get a little rough. We seem to be experiencing one of those rough periods right now.

During the past few days, I've received a multitude of email notifications and print publications about tension in the workplace caused by the co-existence of four generations working side by side. Differing opinions and attitudes between older and younger generations is hardly new. But never in our history have there been four and soon to be five generations working together. Thanks to a quality of life now extending for many people into their 80s and even 90s, great-great-grandparents are supervising and are often times being supervised by workers 60 or more years younger. The doors have been blown off the natural exodus of the oldest generation as a new younger generation enters the workforce. In the not too distant past, 60 years was a lifetime; today it is just the amount of time spent working. For both good and bad reasons, this mash-up of generations has created what I've called "the Gray Ceiling."

But I digress. Back to the reality of the generations gap -- a source of irritation and agitation between people of different ages.

Despite decades of age differences and a multitude of different life experiences, individuals from each generation often share more things in common that the media (including myself) let on. As individuals, we cross similar milestones (age 30, 40, 50, etc). What differs is the path each generation takes to reach that age.

For example, as an older Baby Boomer I never worried about getting shot at school or a movie theater. The worst thing that might happen at school was that I misbehaved or forgot my homework and got my knuckles smacked with a ruler. My biggest worry was the 'atomic bomb" and seeking shelter under my wooden school desk! Today a student has a reasonably good chance of being bullied, molested, and even shot.

The events surrounding our formative years alter our frame of reference. Generations do have attitude gaps based on the world we experience at a certain age. "Act your age" has a completely different meaning for Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. While each generation has experienced acts of war, only two have really experienced attacks on our soil... and Pearl Harbor was thousands of miles away and only a U.S. territory at the time. Millennials along with the rest of us experienced attacks right here at home, in our own backyard.

Regardless of age or generation, a bond does exist among people of all ages. We all seek security and shelter (good old Maslow got it right). We all want to feel safe, have a roof over our head, and food on the table. Our descriptions and context for security and shelter however differ based on our life experiences. These life experiences, especially macro-events like war, assassinations, and scientific breakthroughs, shape generational attitudes.

For example, the last time a generation worried about the mass extinction of jobs was in the mid-to-late 1800s when the industrial revolution shifted jobs from the farm to the factory. Even as recently as 50 years ago, few people worried about permanent job loss. If you had one skill, it might carry you through a lifetime of work. If terminated from one job, it was very likely the skill transferred to another. Today, job security is like vaporware for the young. Few employers can provide long term job security. Entire companies and industries become extinct as innovation revolutionizes and transforms work in years, not over the span of generations. Where the company once held the gift of a life-long career, it is now the individual himself that is responsible for creating long term career security. Regardless of the generation, people of all ages share the desire for security.

There is a simple solution for bridging this generation gap -- at least partially finding common ground. Even if attitudes differ, it is important to start the conversation.

When speaking and working with clients, I often suggest that managers and employees complete one or more self-assessments. This isn't so much about self-awareness for self-development but gaining the ability to see the world while walking in another's shoes.

When the information from these self-assessments is aggregated and compared, participants expect the results to align by generations. But that outcome rarely if ever occurs. To the contrary employees across all generations typically share similar communication styles and even personal values. Likewise people within the same generation may hate each other's guts.

The bottom line is that it's simply too easy to blame generations gaps at work and home on age difference alone. Many times different attitudes and resulting conflicts have to do more with personal style and values. And just as I don't align myself with every Baby Boomer, individuals from other generations aren't clones cut from the same mold.

I often find myself enjoying and appreciating Millennials and Gen X more than my own Baby Boomer peers. This feeling often has more to do with sharing similar behavioral styles and values than reminiscing about the good old days. Before jumping on the age based generational gap train, take a good hard look at yourself and others. You might be surprised how much you share with people from other generations which is a monumental step at bridging generational gaps.