Generational Mosaic

Blog prompt: Describe an experience working with someone from a different generation. What were some of the challenges? What were the benefits?

In all honesty, until recently (that is, the past 5 or 6 years) I hadn’t really given much thought to the impact of the intergenerational workplace. As an administrator I would look around me and see, in terms of ages, people who generally looked like me or were older. When I was a young administrator supervising people quite a bit older than me, my only sense about age differences was that I knew it might be awkward for older people to be supervised by someone much younger, that they did have experience about our work that would prove valuable, and that they often defied stereotypes and were, in fact, quite open to change (in other words, they weren’t “stuck in their ways” or inflexible). One area where I usually noticed the generational differences was in relation to their attitudes about women in the workplace…there was often a lot of deference to the men, a tendency to address the men by their title (Dr. Smith, for the male administrator) and women by their first name (Carrie, for an administrator who, like Dr. Smith, had her doctorate), and a willingness to forgive older men for their sexist and racist comments (“Well, you know, he was raised in a different time”).

Because my entire career has been in education, the generational differences I saw around were compartmentalized: employees were older, students were younger. And even as I write that, I’m kind of shocked at the naiveté of that statement given that I worked in community colleges where many of the students were my age. As I’ve gotten older, I guess it’s not especially surprising that I see the generations more clearly. Two key events began to shape my understanding of the ways our age and generational experiences shape our thinking. The first, the Beloit College Mindset Lists, helped reinforce how experiences key to one generation may not be relevant to another. It’s at these times that I wish I had been a sociologist — some of these differences may have been more obvious to me … As I began to understand these generational experiences, I began to better understand my parents (an interesting side benefit). In terms of my parents (and people in their generation), I became more keenly aware of how being born in the shadow of the Great Depression impacted their thinking about life, about financial security, and employment. As a person working with students, the Mindset Lists provided cues to the subtle differences that emerge between generations.

The second event that helped broaden my awareness of intergenerational differences was a conference session at the NASPA Western Regional conference in 2003. The conference session had something about Millennials in the title and described the session as helping current student affairs professionals understand how this generation of students thinks, acts, and approaches life. The session clearly focused on Millennials (Gen Y) as students: the stage was set up to depict a typical Millennial’s room in a residence hall and there was some role-playing to illustrate communication. The Millennials are no longer solely part of our student body, they’re the up and coming professionals in the work place. And, yes, there are differences between them and other generations … but there are also differences between Gen Xers and other generations, Baby Boomers and other generations, etc. But we do seem to focus a lot on the Millennials, which, ta-dah, is part of what has shaped their experiences (tons of attention from those older than themselves).

The message for the workforce is Millennials are different, don’t expect them to think/behave like you. Some may think this means they have to change their organizations to accommodate Millennials rather than asking Millennials to accommodate to the realities of the workplace. Yes, we have lavished a lot of attention on Millennials and then are surprised if they come to the workplace with a sense of entitlement about how things should work. I was talking with someone the other day who was lamenting working with Millennials. She was dismayed that (from her perspective) they showed little initiative at work. They did what was required of them, she said, but when those projects were done, they didn’t take care of other work that needed to be done and sometimes were, she said in a very shocked tone, checking their Facebook status and sending text messages. While she thought a specific work ethic should be obvious, she began to see that she needed to be very clear about what she wanted from her team. This isn’t really a bad idea, though … right? Being clear in our expectations can help ensure that we’re all on the same page, that we’re all working toward the same goal, and that we have a shared sense of how we’re going to get there.

Now that I’m not supervising employees, I see the intergenerational differences play out in classes. And, like the person described in the previous paragraph, I realize that the intergenerational differences are causing me to be very clear about my assumptions. What are my assumptions about assignments? About the effort people will put into those efforts? About the types of assignments I create (team assignments, single person assignments, etc.)? While Boomers might get an assignment and do it (even if they don’t quite understand its relevance), we can generalize that Gen X and Gen Y students may not accept an assignment on its face value and will likely question its relevance — and will likely want to be clear about what is required of them. A jaded view of this translates to: What’s the minimum amount of effort I need to put into this so I can get on to other things? But, that’s actually not a bad question for teachers to ask. What is the minimum amount of effort? What does that look like and what grade does this translate to? Let’s get on the same page. I’ve begun to see this as an opportunity to be clear about assignments, what minimum effort is and what grade will result (C, by the way), and then what “B” work looks like and what “A” work looks like. The great thing is that I’ve made my expectations transparent to students as well as to myself. Everyone benefits.

Similarly, I’ve started increasing my own awareness of decisions I make about the class. If I ask students to work together, I want to be clear about why that’s a good approach for this assignment, why working on a team might produce better results than working individually, and understanding that even working in a team might look different for different groups. I saw this in class last week when students broke into groups to work on some discussion questions. Some groups worked through the questions together, one question at a time. Other groups worked on the questions individually then compared and discussed their answers.

I also realize there are different ways to communicate with students. I communicate with students through our course management system, Sakai. I use the email feature as well as the announcements (that I post and email). Younger students know that email is used by faculty and so they read it. But I try to keep my emails short. When I write a long one, I usually include a warning at the beginning. I haven’t developed a Facebook page or Twitter feed for the course … but now I’m curious: Would this appeal to students? And if so, how could we use it? And, what would be the value added of using these tools? Hmmmm…I’m curious and intrigued by the possibilities.


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