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Creating community across generations

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Five generations of Minnesotans are now living and working together in communities and challenging each other to work across differences. “Community members of all ages can work well together, especially if they know the mindsets, expectations, and work styles of each generation,” says leadership and civic engagement educator Lisa Hinz. “All too often, the differences between generations, rather than the areas of opportunity, shape how people work together.”

Getting to know the generations

Each generation is marked by defining events and unique characteristics. Here’s who the five generations are:1

  • Builders (born before 19462): Also known as the “Greatest Generation,” “Silent Generation,” and “Traditionalists.” Their defining events were the Great Depression and invention of automobiles. Primary characteristics include duty and honor to country, loyalty, patience, conformity, national pride, doing a good job, and equating age with seniority.
  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964): Also known as the “Me Generation” and “Woodstock Generation.” Defining events included national prosperity and the space race. They value personal development, health and wellness, visible success, optimism, and being defined by jobs.
  • Gen Xers (born 1965-1980): Also known as “Generations X,” “Busters,” and “Post-Boomers.” Defining events include the Challenger disaster, the fall of the Berlin wall, and single parenting. Characteristics include independence, self-reliance, desire for stability, diversity, global thinking, and informality.
  • Millennials (born 1981-1995): Also known as “Generation Y,” “Nexters,” and the “Internet Generation.” Defining events include the proliferation of computers, the school shooting at Columbine, and 9/11. Characteristics include optimism, social commitment, individualism (yet group-oriented), and being digital natives (a person who was born or grew up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age). 
  • Digitals (born 1996-): Also known as “Generation Z,” “Facebook Generation,” and “Google Generation.” Defining event includes the technology revolution. Characteristics include being social media savvy, wanting instant results, skill gaps, lower expectations and confidence, a global mindset, and diversity.

Beyond generalizations

While the above generalities are helpful, they can get in the way of developing real relationships across generations. “Not all millennials are crazy about digital life, and some older generations love social media,” says leadership and civic engagement educator Jody Horntvedt. To avoid stereotyping and generalities, Horntvedt suggests simply getting to know people from other generations. Going for a walk or meeting for coffee is a great way to learn where others are coming from. “We don’t incorporate that into our community work as much as we should,” she says.

Creating respectful communities

Respect is defined differently by generation, so one subject of conversation among generations might be about how different community members prefer to be treated, explains Hinz. In U.S. culture, for example, deference is given to older people when making rules, and younger people are expected to obey. This can be a source of tension in intergenerational settings. “Ask those involved what respect means to them—in communication and in feedback,” says Hinz. “Talk it over and work toward a shared understanding of agreed upon expectations.”

Horntvedt likes these 10 tips for communicating respectfully—and successfully—across generations:

  1. Match formality to the culture. “Community members from an older generation may be more formal in their writing, while those from a younger generation may use more informal language as used in texting and tweeting,” Horntvedt says. “As a leader, it’s important to establish clear expectations for the group.”
  2. Use different communication channels. Someone from an older generation may prefer talking on the phone, while someone from a younger generation may prefer texting. “As a community group, you need to figure out which communication channel to use to reach each group member,” says Horntvedt. “It’s important to create an environment where people can talk about their preferred method of communication so they don’t feel alienated.”
  3. Individualize your approach. “If you notice someone stops to talk to you in person or sends an email from across the room, that may indicate their preferred method of communication,” says Horntvedt. “Try to meet people where they’re at and respond accordingly.”
  4. Understand value differences. People of different generations may value different work styles. “Don’t put value judgments on how people think or feel; look for the positive,” explains Horntvedt. “We all have similar values. We just might express them differently.”
  5. Ask, don’t assume. Don’t stereotype, cautions Horntvedt. “Being mindful of others is the responsibility of each community member.”
  6. Be aware of motivating factors. What inspires someone to work or lead a certain way? What do people of different generations need to feel valued by their community? “Not considering individual motivation can cause misunderstanding and tension,” says Horntvedt.
  7. Be willing to learn. Make a time to learn about the experiences of different generations. Be curious about how certain events have impacted their perspective on leadership and community.
  8. Be willing to teach. Older generations can lend advice and years of knowledge. Younger generations can share information about new technology or social trends. Sharing knowledge can strengthen any community effort.
  9. Acknowledge differences. It is okay that each generation has different communication styles and perspectives. “What’s important is to talk about those differences and work out solutions so everyone feels respected and understood,” Horntvedt says.
  10. Don’t take it personally. If a generational miscommunication occurs, try not to get frustrated. Instead, talk to the person to clarify what they intended to say or do. Be patient as you learn from one another.

Moving forward

While there are generational differences, the core need to feel valued and recognized is similar across generations.  “Appreciating these similarities and differences makes you a better, more authentic community member,” says Hinz.

Horntvedt agrees. “I really believe that when we figure how to lead and follow effectively across generations, we can be so much more effective in our communities. Each of us has so much to learn from one another, and our communities are richer for it.”


1Sources: Lancaster, L.C. & Stillman, D. (2002). When Generations Collide. New York: Harper Business; Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York: AMACOM; Tulgan, B. (2013). Meet Generation Z.

2Years for generations vary slightly among scholars and practitioners.

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Elyse Paxton

Reviewed in 2016

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