Communication: Gen X vs Gen Y

May 23rd, 2014 – 3 Key Success Factors to effective cross-generational Business Communication

From a Generation X perspective…

Gen X and Y – think about your workday.  Probably all you do is communicate – respond, transact, demand, request, reject, watch, edit, send – and work hastily in this contest of productivity. Where’s the thinking, the cautious response, the articulate email? Gen X and Gen Y grew up in completely different eras of communication. To Gen X, communication was just a vehicle to deliver your work but not today…

Channels – Keeping up with the Jones, and the Channels

When we began our careers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we had four channels of communication to choose from: face-to-face, snail mail, internal email (if lucky), and a landline telephone. Because most communication occurred face-to-face, we quickly mastered the art of verbal communication and persuasion to get noticed.

Since then, Gen X has been both slammed and delighted with so many more channels to utilize. But we are a compliant generation, we do what we’re told and more often join than reject. (Sometimes this hurts our brains but we deal, we have to.) Gen X has chosen to adapt to all this new technology by learning how to use each channel, and when to use each channel.

We appreciate the tremendous upsides of multiple channels and Gen X works hard to embrace and optimize each of the channels. We believe we have no choice, we have to or we’ll fall behind Gen Y and Z, and with many of us 50+, ignorance is dangerous. We adapt to hold our jobs, to keep up with Gen Y, because the speed is so incredible, and to stay in the loop at work and with our children. We take classes, look to our Gen Zs for the latest channels, and often we “fake it ‘til we make it” to keep up with the younger competition. We want Gen Y to know we’re doing our best to keep up with the channels. We’ve adapted your stuff, now adapt some of ours!

Eye Level Treatment – Goodbye Inequality

Gen X is accustomed to inequality in the workplace: not all colleagues are treated equal. Those in the C-Suite had unlimited perks including dining rooms, limos, showers, many assistants, even jet planes. We assumed they deserved it, and we respected those who seemed intelligent enough to deserve that kind of position. Many of us didn’t like the players or the schmoozers but we laughed at it.

When it comes to communication between different levels, Gen X prefers equality but will tolerate inequality within limits. Because of the hierarchy in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were forced to tolerate a lot of crap from superiors.  Some superiors thought they could get away with treating staff poorly, and they often did. Sometimes the communication became verbal abuse, which I’ve both witnessed and experienced as a victim. The superior’s sense of entitlement got too big and Gen X got too compliant. Today the majority of Gen X would not let superiors treat them like crap, and I’m glad the playing field / org chart is getting flatter.

Gen X realizes there are multiple levels and different personalities, so we don’t expect to be treated equally all the time, but we do want to be treated respectfully, especially by Gen Ys.  I expect to be treated with respect and consideration. I expect colleagues to look up when they speak to me, to turn off their phone if I’m presenting, and to use one form of communication at a time. Not giving me full attention is disrespectful.

Tact, Tone & Timing – What’s the best way to reach you?   

Throughout our careers, Gen X has worked with many different kinds of colleagues, each with different styles. There were the schmoozers who got the top jobs, the hermit CEOs who hid in their offices, the thinkers who avoided communication and thankfully many bosses/mentors who groomed us for management positions.

Many we liked, some we secretly disliked but the key point is that we ACCEPTED what we were DEALT, we didn’t try to change their style or complain about it. Gen X accepts whom we work with, because we respect our superiors and expect them to make the right personnel decisions.We know how to get along with any style, even if we don’t like them, because we grew up playing nicely like Mr. Rodgers taught us in kindergarten. I’m not saying that style doesn’t matter to Gen X, it certainly does, but style has always been a personality trait vs. something we can change.

Today, communication style is the #1 factor of success because all we do is communicate. A tactful communicator will think about how and when to state something and to send a message, will consider the source and choose words carefully. Gen X identifies with labels and styles, and we would use a tool like this to understand our colleagues’ communication styles.

As much as we embrace technology, Gen X needs boundaries, respect for our personal space and time when it comes to sending us communications.  Learning a colleague’s communication styles is like identifying the dietary needs of guests coming to your dinner party. You don’t serve steak to a vegetarian, or heavy desserts to a diabetic; you ask them what their preferences are first. If you don’t ask, you’re the one who looks bad.


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