Conflict between generations is an age-old phenomenon. But at the end of 2019, when the retort “OK, Boomer” went viral, the vitriol — from both young people who said it and older people who opposed it — was pointed and widespread.
The sarcastic phrase was coined by a younger generation to push back on an older one they saw as dismissive and condescending, and it became popular from Korea to New Zealand even though the term “Boomer” is barely used outside of the United States. The retort captured the yawning divide between the generations over seemingly every issue: political activism, climate change, social media, technology, privacy, gender identity.
With five generations together in U.S. workplaces for the first time (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z), and similar dynamics playing out in other parts of the world, tensions are mounting. The anger and lack of trust they can cause hurt team performance by limiting collaboration, sparking emotional conflict, and leading to higher employee turnover and lower team performance. And a lack of awareness and understanding of age issues can drive discrimination in hiring and promotion, leading to lawsuit risks.
But many organizations don’t take steps to address generational issues. While companies have recently renewed their diversity efforts, only 8% of organizations include age as part of their DEI strategy. And of organizations that do address it, the strategy has often been to simply encourage those of different generations to focus on their similarities or to deny the reality of their differences altogether.
This is a missed opportunity. Age-diverse teams are valuable because they bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information, and networks. If managed effectively, they can offer better decision-making, more-productive collaboration, and improved overall performance — but only if members are willing to share and learn from their differences. Think of a multigenerational team of product developers, merging the seasoned experience and broad client network of its older members with the fresh perspectives and up-to-date supplier network of its younger ones. Such a group can use its age diversity to build something no generation could on its own.
Take the Open Sustainability Technology Lab at Michigan Technological University, a multigenerational team that developed the first low-cost open-source metal 3D printer. Former director Joshua Pearce credits the team’s success to members’ willingness to learn from those of other generations. To develop their new product, they needed the technical skills of Gen X faculty, the software wizardry of Millennial graduate students, and the experienced resourcefulness of Boomer researchers. For example, once when a younger team member turned to Amazon to order an urgently needed mechanical component, an older colleague intervened and built it from spare parts more quickly than even Amazon could have delivered it. By combining abilities, the team developed the ability to 3D print in aluminum and steel at a much lower cost than had been possible.
That’s why papering over generational differences isn’t the answer. Through our work with age-diverse groups in finance, health care, sports, agriculture, and R&D, we’ve found that a better approach is to help people acknowledge, appreciate, and make use of their differences — just as organizations do with other kinds of diversity. Evidence shows that when time-tested DEI tools are used to bridge age divides, they can reduce conflict and generational stereotypes and improve organizational commitment, job satisfaction, employee turnover, and organizational performance.
In our book, Gentelligence, we lay out our framework for moving colleagues away from generational conflict and toward a productive embrace of one another’s differences. There are four practices involved. The first two, identify your assumptions and adjust your lens, help overcome false stereotypes. The next two, take advantage of differences and embrace mutual learning, guide people to share knowledge and expertise so that they can grow together. Each practice also includes an activity to apply its ideas. Teams experiencing generational conflict should start with the first two; the latter two will help groups move beyond simply getting along and leverage the learning and innovation that intergenerational teams can offer.
To introduce the framework, let’s look at what makes a generation — and what makes generations different from each other.
A generation is an age cohort whose members are born during the same period in history and who thus experience significant events and phenomena at similar life stages. These collective experiences — say, high unemployment, a population boom, or political change — can shape the group’s values and norms in a unique way. Because these formative experiences vary from culture to culture, the specifics of generational makeup vary around the world.
But across geographies, the different outlooks, attitudes, and behaviors of cohorts can lead to conflict. For example, in many countries older workers, who have dominated the workplace for decades, are staying in it longer due to better health and longevity. Younger colleagues, anxious for change and upward mobility, are often impatient for them to move on. And when Boomers and digital natives work side by side, tensions can arise about whose contributions are valued more. If the client database that an older employee developed is replaced by automated software suggested by a younger associate, the older employee may feel that their contribution is being minimized.
These generational frustrations have become even more pronounced during the pandemic. As people of all ages have left their jobs in the so-called Great Resignation, older and younger workers are competing for similar roles. While older workers have more experience, the 35-and-under age groups, according to a recent survey of hiring managers, are seen as having the most relevant education and skills and the best cultural fit for open positions. Even as people flocked online during the pandemic, different generations tended to spend time on different platforms — older people scrolling Facebook, younger ones TikTok — deepening the digital divide. Gen Z employees, meanwhile, have worked remotely for most if not all of their professional lives, leaving many feeling disconnected from coworkers and undervalued by their older teammates. And older generations have adjusted to working from home better than expected, finding the flexibility energizing after a lifetime of long hours at the office.
Many of these tensions — and the media hype around them — have led to a further decline in trust between the generations. The steps we outline in the four practices and activities below are designed to help bridge that gap and move toward better intergenerational cooperation.
Identify Your Assumptions
The assumptions we make about generational groups (including our own) can hold us back from understanding teammates’ true selves as well as the skills, information, and connections they have to offer. Noticing that we’re making these assumptions is the first step to combating them.
Take headlines such as this one from 2019: “Why ‘lazy,’ ‘entitled’ millennials can’t last 90 days at work.” As is often the case, the stereotype on display falls apart on closer inspection. Pew Research Center has found that 70% of Millennials, who are currently aged 26 to 41, stick with their employers for at least 13 months; 69% of Gen Xers stayed that long during the same period of their lives.
Not all biases are blatant enough to make headlines. But even beliefs that we hold at the subconscious level can influence our interactions and our decision-making, often without us realizing it. For example, imagine being asked to nominate a few teammates to lead an Instagram campaign. Who comes to mind? Probably some of your 20-something colleagues. Consciously, you may believe you are choosing those who are the most qualified, most interested, and most able to benefit from the experience. Unconsciously, you may be falling back on deeply embedded assumptions that older people dislike technology or are uninterested in learning anything new.
When it comes to conflict on intergenerational teams, people often rightly suspect there’s something age-related going on, but they frequently assume it means something other than what it really does. Let’s look at how this played out on one team we studied. At the Fung Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, leaders created teams of undergraduates and retirees to collaborate on wellness products for older adults. Initially, these teams ran into several interpersonal challenges. For example, when the retirees didn’t respond quickly to texts sent by their younger peers, the students felt that their counterparts weren’t taking them or the project seriously. Meanwhile, the retirees resented their teammates’ assumptions and seemingly haphazard communication. Work slowed as relations became strained.
Such teams need a tool to recognize the specific age biases they may hold, understand tensions that exist, and head off brewing conflict. We recommend an assumption audit.
Adjust Your Lens
Recognizing assumptions is important, but teams also need to combat them. Stereotypes often cause us to incorrectly attribute differences to age or to assume ill intent where there is none. Adjusting your lens means considering whether the assumptions that you’ve identified align with the reality of the situation at hand, or whether you’ve been judging someone’s actions and attitudes based only on your frame of reference. Try to understand why colleagues from different generations might behave differently than you do. To expand your thinking in that way, use the describe-interpret-evaluate exercise.
Take Advantage of Differences
Once you’ve tempered generational tensions by recognizing assumptions and adjusting lenses, you can work on finding productive differences with your colleagues of other generations and ways to benefit from each other’s perspectives, knowledge, and networks.
For team members to feel comfortable sharing in this way — bringing up new ideas or conflicting information — they need to feel a certain amount psychological safety, as the research of Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson shows. But, as we’ve seen, perceived generational competition in the workplace, exacerbated by clickbait headlines, has undermined trust. One good way to rebuild it is to hold a roundtable where the team’s diverse perspectives can be acknowledged and valued.
Embrace Mutual Learning
Finally, to fully reap the benefits of intergenerational teams, members must believe that they have something to learn from colleagues in different age cohorts. The ultimate goal is mutual learning: peers of all ages teaching and learning from one another in an ongoing loop.
One way to encourage this is with formal mentoring initiatives. While traditional mentoring programs (older colleagues teaching younger ones) exist at many organizations, a number of top companies — including GE, Deloitte, PwC, Cisco, and Procter & Gamble — have developed “reverse mentoring” programs, where younger people teach older peers new skills, typically around technology. We suggest that companies and even managers of small teams combine both approaches into two-way “mutual mentoring.” Research shows that such programs support employees’ development of competencies and skills and increase both individual involvement and collective motivation.
Mutual learning can also happen organically when people of different generations have good relationships and are on the lookout for opportunities. BuildWitt Media, a digital storytelling firm we’ve studied, helps its clients in the construction and mining industries attract great talent. Its founder and CEO is 26-year-old Aaron Witt; its president, Dan Briscoe, is 53. While cross-generational learning was never an explicit reason for their partnership, they have come to value how Briscoe’s 30 years of experience in leadership, sales, and marketing complement Witt’s impulsive energy, sense of business trends, and lifelong immersion in mobile media. For example, Briscoe credits Witt with teaching him to look beyond academic degrees and GPA when hiring and to consider leadership potential and alignment with culture and values in addition to a work portfolio. Witt says Briscoe is good at relating to clients and putting deals together. This partnership, they agree, has led to rapid growth and the opportunity to diversify their services.
Activity: Mutual Mentoring.
To start building a mentorship culture on your team, create an informal mutual mentoring network. Begin by asking team members of all ages what they want to learn and what they want to teach. Potential teachers can be surprisingly shy when it comes to their expertise; it may help if you make suggestions about what you see as their strengths.
Identify where there are natural connections: employees who are versed in TikTok and those who want to learn to create selfie videos, or employees who have an established roster of clients and those who want to expand their networks. While not all pairings need to be cross-generational, make sure all generations are represented in both the learner and the instructor groups.
Once you have some pairings ready, hold a kickoff meeting with the entire team and ask four to six mentors to present briefly on their area of expertise. Encourage people to reach out to the mentors whose skills they want to learn. Often the energy of the meeting itself will spur connections, but you can also send monthly nudges to remind the team to keep questions flowing.
Even this kind of informal network can help to build a culture of cross-generational learning.
. . .
“OK, Boomer,” “Gen X cynics,” “entitled Millennials,” and “Gen Z snowflakes.” We have become so entrenched in generational name-calling — or, conversely, so focused on downplaying the differences that do exist — that we have forgotten there is strength in age diversity. Especially at a time when we are wrestling with so many changes to the way we work, it’s incumbent on leaders to embrace intergenerational teams as a key piece of the DEI puzzle and to frame them as an opportunity to be seized rather than a threat to be managed.