12 September 2015 10:37:15 IST

Mind the gap!

The issue of generation gap is not confined only to family and social situations, it permeates the workplace too

The term ‘generation gap’ ws perhaps coined owning the alliterative charm the words help. While generation chasm would be a more apt phrase instead, as this term, in all seriousness, signifies the deep differences between two generations of people.

Differences in terms preferences, values, living style, attitude; in fact, anything that can be debated upon or argued about. The gaps in communication and understanding are bound to happen between two generations as the old and young do not understand each other owing to their varied experiences, opinions, habits and behaviour. We experience this in our day to day lives in our own families and within our friends circle.

Generation gap manifests in many aspects of our life.

I have noticed considerable differences between generations in choice of food, attire, attitude towards an authority figure, leisure, and value attached to money amongst many other things.

The issue of generation gap is not confined only to family and social situations. This needs attention at the workplace too. We spend considerable amount of our waking hours in our work places; it is important we recognise the issue and also acquire the necessary wherewithal to deal with the challenges.

In the last couple of years we are witnessing lot of action in the emergence of start-ups particularly in the technology domain. There are lot of venture capital funds chasing the next Uber or Alibaba. There is a wall to wall coverage about the identifying the next Unicorn, a hotshot technology company which commands a valuation of $1 billion and its boyish looking founder or CEO who is all of 26 years.

It is true that many technology start-up companies have a young founding team or work force. We also need to recognise the start-up industry is just one segment of the entire employment landscape. Many of our large IT companies are approaching their third or fourth decade of existence and it natural to find managers in our software companies in their late 40s or 50s. In FMCG, manufacturing or infrastructure sectors you will find a much larger population of employees in their 50s and approaching retirement.

Important to learn to work with each other

All these make it important for a young entrant in to the corporate world to develop the required skills to effectively work with colleagues. The western demographers describe people born between 1946 and 1964 as baby boomers, the next cohort is called as Gen-X, and they are born in the mid-60s till early 80s and people born in late 80s onwards are referred to as Generation-Y. The Gen-Y, popularly called the ‘Millennials’. There are many books written about the typical characteristics of the people belonging to various generations of current times.

It is natural for us to be impacted and influenced by the social economic factors and our attitudes, values and beliefs are shaped by our environment. A young person growing up in socialistic India of the 60s and joining the workforce in 70s saw limited employment opportunities in private sector.

The best career option was to work for the Government. Such a professional is likely to have a very different worldview compared to person who is born in liberalized India of the 90s, where access to products and services are available at the touch of the button and there are plenty of entrepreneurial opportunities for the talented.

Now let us look at the two generations’ approach to work. A typical baby boomer will display deference to authority figures and is likely to be a conscientious worker.

Intrinsic differences

Many baby boomers define themselves by their professional accomplishments; they are career focussed and take great pride in long working hours to ensure contributions to their profession or organisation. Baby boomers believe in hierarchy and rankism. They believe in “face time” in organisation. The millennials, on the other hand, are a networked generation, and have a strong affinity to the communities they belong.

Work to them, is one ‘aspect’ of their life. They are naturally tech savvy which has earned this generation the nick name of ‘digital natives’. Thanks to their deep interest in social media with regular activity updates and selfies, they are criticised for being all about “ME only” implying a narcissistic element in their approach to life.

Spiro Agnew, Vice President of US, during Richard Nixon’s administration had something interesting to say on the generation gap: The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as the generation gap.

A classic representation of this is a college classroom or even a corporate training room. The moment the faculty (obviously from the older generation) starts with – During my days – one can hear grunts and groans from the young participants who look away in contempt!

While the older generation laments and the younger generation frustrates over this perennial problem, there have been earnest efforts towards building some connect and empathy between generations.

Bridging the Gap

Many progressive organisations skilfully tap into the expertise of the employees belonging to a different generation. Many organisations assign mentors to new employees who are joining their ranks. These mentors provide the necessary support, introduce the new members to the key networks by making the vital connects and provide the necessary emotional anchorage to young employees. I have known many instances of a young professional, in her early 20s, striking a rapport and building lifelong friendship with a senior colleague. This transcends, not only organizational boundaries but the generation divide as well.

Reverse mentoring

We are also witnessing a phenomenon that can be dubbed as “reverse mentoring” where younger employees actually help their senior colleagues navigate the technology and social media space. As social media emerges as an important communication channel for the CEOs, it is the young brigade they are tapping into the medium to lead this initiative. The same is applicable when the traditional retailers are moving online; they need the help of the Gen-Y, who have intuitive understanding of the online consumer behaviour.

Banking is a traditional industry in India and across the world and today there is emergence of payment banks which leverages technology significantly. Many established banks need to respond to this new challenge effectively lest they should lose their market share rapidly. Many such banks are taking good advantage of their young talent’s comfort with technology and community orientation to deal with this emerging landscape.

Striking a balance

So, while the generation gap is here to stay and today’s young professionals have to accept this as a reality in their work life, the key would be to strike a balance between the energy, passion and risk taking orientation of the youth and the maturity, wisdom and the grounded approach of the more experienced colleagues.

My submission to the younger lot: By all means challenge the status quo. That is how change happens, but be respectful to the people involved. And for the wiser group, I will borrow popular author Simon Sinek’s quote: Leadership is not about the next election. It is about the next generation.

Whether you are a baby boomer, or Gen X, or a Millennial, follow your convictions, values and choices, but always: mind the gap!

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