How to diffuse intergenerational tensions


intergeneration conflicts erode harmony, weaken relationships, diminish productivity.

“How many world leaders, for how many decades, have seen and known what is coming but have decided that it is more politically expedient to keep it behind closed doors?” thundered Chlöe Swarbrick, the millennial MP, on the impact of climate change, in New Zealand Parliament. “My generation and the generations after me do not have that luxury. In 2050, I will be 56 years old. Yet, right now, the average age of this 52nd Parliament is 49 years.” She was heckled by Todd Muller, an older MP. “OK boomer,” Swarbrick retorted, and continued with her speech.

Such intergeneration conflicts erode harmony, weaken relationships, diminish productivity. How can these tensions be diffused? The starting point is for each generation to tune into the mindset, priorities, communication style of the other.

“How do you perceive the non-millennials?” I have posed this to hundreds of millennials, and the answer is: “Slow, experienced, serious, conventional, patient, compliant and less open to change.” “How do you perceive the millennials?” The prompt response from the non-millennials is: “Quick, impatient, experimental, distracted, non-compliant, abrasive, seeking change and looking for fun.”

So, how does the patient align with the impatient, the compliant with the non-compliant, the experienced with the inexperienced, and the work-focused with the multi-focused?

Patient versus impatient

“My 20-something team members expect a promotion every year,” lamented Surabhi, a manager in the operations vertical of a bank. “They want to do something new and different every day. Considering that our work entails process execution, which tends to be repetitive, how can I assign them fancy work all the time?”

The millennials are accustomed to having things at the click of a mouse. Want to watch a movie? Access Netflix. Want to plan a holiday? Do so on Makemytrip. Want to shop? Buy almost anything under the sun, any time, on Amazon or Flipkart. Want beauty treatment? Call Urbanclap. Want a date? Simply swipe right!

Instant gratification is engrained in their DNA. The problem occurs when they start expecting things to happen instantaneously in other aspects of life, like career and relationships. “Unfortunately, there is no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable and often messy processes,” remarked Simon Sinek, the author of five books, in a 2016 interview about his take on the millennials.

The non-millennials need to drop the bias of their own experience, and accept that if they had taken, say 10 years, to cover a certain course of their career, the millennials could do it in less. They would be better off playing the mentor and guide, nurturing and developing the millennials. They also need to think of ways to engage the millennials by curating challenging assignments, facilitating their skill development through quick and imaginative learning bites, and keeping them motivated through recognition, spot awards.

Compliant versus non-compliant

“I am not coming in today.” Surabhi turned livid as she read this message from Manasi, her millennial team member, as there was a client meeting that day. “Call me back,” she thundered. Much to her chagrin, Manasi did not respond.

Another day, donning her coaching hat, Surabhi told Manasi that when writing to a client she should start with a greeting. “I write to my clients several times a day. I greet them the first time and I don’t see why I should be greeting them each time,” Manasi stumped her.

“My team members come in and go as they please, waste their time chit-chatting instead of investing time in self-development, dress atrociously, blatantly ignoring the corporate attire policy, are abrasive, and quick to answer back. It is frustrating,” bemoaned Surabhi. I have heard hundreds of managers echo Surabhi’s sentiment.

The millennials would be better off learning the art of asking questions and expressing their views unoffensively and respectfully. Complying with the office decorum in terms of dress, punctuality, timely submissions of time sheets and updating their manager about progress on assignments will help them build their credibility, benefiting career progression.

The non-millennials should to recognise that the millennials are confident and non-hierarchical, and will not hesitate to ask questions and express contrary views. They need to be prepared to answer the ‘why’ before the ‘what’.

Work-focused versus multi-focused

“Manasi packs up and leaves at 6pm. It is difficult to ask her to work on a weekend. When I started off, and even today, I work late hours and even weekends sometimes, without complaining, for my own career growth,” remarked a frustrated Surabhi.

The same evening Manasi was heard remarking to a friend, “On Friday evening, Surabhi asks me to log in on Saturday. What the hell? Couldn’t she assign the work earlier in the week? The other day, I finished running my process at 3.30pm and had to wait endlessly for her to sign off before I could leave. She showed up at 6pm. Was busy in a meeting, apparently. Why can’t she plan her day better? She may not have a life outside office, but I do.”

Such scenarios play out frequently. A millennial once shared her strategy for tacking such situations. “I proactively reach out to my manager early in the week to check if any assignments are likely to come my way. I keep him posted about my weekend plans and my non-availability on certain weekends. I have learnt the art of saying ‘no’ respectfully. I explain the situation, offer an alternative, so it does not impact our relationship adversely.”

Managers need to plan their time better, be a role model and understand the millennials’ requirement for a work-life balance. If an assignment does come up that entails extended hours, rather than being prescriptive, put the ball in their court by sharing the goal, along with the constraints, soliciting a solution.

Experienced versus inexperienced

The millennials no longer look up to seniors for knowledge, but the internet. However, they should know that knowledge is not synonymous with experience. For example, the unique perspective a trainer obtains after addressing hundreds of people in different contexts, industries and levels is impossible to get from articles, books and videos. The non-millennials can have the millennials respect them for their experience and perspective if they make it contextual, relevant and of immediate value.

(The author is an executive coach, organisational development facilitator, and founder-director of Delta Learning)

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