But I’ve also heard some really incredibly harebrained ideas about how to navigate the multigenerational workplace. Are you ready? This is what I saw.
I visited an organization, and they adopted this idea that if you can see it, you can be it. A really important concept. But I think they blew it.
They put pictures on the walls of the ideal multigenerational workplace, because if you can see it, you can be it.
Or like this one. Like, I don’t even want to work here. You don’t get to wear color here, apparently, and HR seriously has problems with people jumping in heels, I promise you that, OK?
I talked to an organization who recently decided against putting a ball pit in the break room because that’s how you retain millennials. We’re 30, not three.
And in fact, I know a young, at the time, millennial, who was told that if she wanted people to take her seriously, just because she was a millennial, she would have to do this — wear shoulder pads. Yes. People younger than her and older than her wouldn’t take her seriously unless she wore shoulder pads.
Straight-out-of-the-80s, can’t-even-buy-them-anywhere shoulder pads. This young woman had two graduate degrees. This young woman was me. And this is the best we came up with? How to navigate the multigenerational workplace … is shoulder pads?
So, this is also what I’ve learned talking to organizations that employ a wide range of people of various ages. We are so much more similar than we are different.
And we’re hearing this consistently. People want work that matters, they want flexibility, they want support, they want appreciation, they want better coffee. But none of these things are tied to a generation.
Now, sure, we see small differences in what people want. We know 20-year-olds and 60-year-olds go home and do different things. They have different values. At least when it comes to things happening outside of work.
But I think what’s happened is that this focus on generational cohorts, these groups of people, has created a space where we just forgot that people are people.
And to know who they really are, who we really work with, we have to figure out how to better navigate this multigenerational workplace than ball pits.
Call me one of those idealist millennials, but I think we can get there. And I don’t think the idea is too terribly difficult. What if we radically, simply, not easily, meet people where they are? Individualize our approach.
I’ve never met a generation. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who happened to identify with a specific generational cohort. I know that 80-year-olds text message and 23-year-olds crochet blankets. None of these things are stereotypical of that generation, right?
Nilofer Merchant — she’s a thought leader in innovation — she tells us we have to meet people in their onlyness, that is, that spot in the world where only we stand, as a function of our unique history, our experiences and our hopes. But this requires flexibility and curiosity.
And what happens when we meet people in their onlyness, only the spot in the world that they stand, we learn that that boomer who is just acting “angry” at work all the time is scared. Because he’s worked every day since he was 16 years old, and on a Monday, sooner than he can imagine, he’ll never go to work again.
He’s got plans. It’s going to take like a week and a half to do all the things on that retirement list. But then what? What if we give a little bit of grace to the person that might be a little scared? Or that Generation X-er who has four drop-offs, three kids, two hands, and is just trying to keep the wheels on the bus.
Sure, maybe she’s a little aloof at work. Maybe she’s a little independent, maybe she’s exhausted. Or that millennial who asks for a raise after two months because they’re “entitled?”
Well, maybe it’s because that generation has more debt than any generation before them, coming out of college, and they just need the money to keep going, to pay rent.
And suddenly, when you meet people in their onlyness, that spot in the world only they stand, we’re not talking about a generation anymore. We’re talking about Jim or Jen or Candice.
And so here’s my challenge to us. Pick a person, just one, and explore their onlyness. And then learn.
And then in the moments where it’s appropriate, teach. And figure out what they bring to work that no one else can bring to work, because that’s what makes work richer. And then do it again. And do it again.
And then some day, we’re not working with generations anymore. We’re working with people. And so to really understand the beauty of the multigenerational workplace, I think we just have to meet people where they are. And that doesn’t require that we unpack and live there with them.
But we might find, at least on occasion, it’s a beautiful place to visit. And so I think there’s just no need to argue about which generation is the most angry or the most entitled or the most so obsessed with food.
We all come to the classroom, to work, back to our homes, a little bit tired and a little bit tattered sometimes. Maybe let’s just do our best to humbly meet people where they are, how they show up that day, generation and all.