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How architects can improve intergenerational communication

Neal Morris

From Baby Boomers to Generation Z, the age gap can be bridged says one leadership coach

Different age groups have different ways of working, use different kinds of language, and have different cultural references and touchpoints that can lead to what behavioural scientists call uneven 'generational alignment.
Different age groups have different ways of working, use different kinds of language, and have different cultural references and touchpoints that can lead to what behavioural scientists call uneven 'generational alignment. Credit: iStock Photo

Different age groups have always mixed in the workplace, providing a rich, diverse culture. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that staff members of different ages bring different skills, experiences, and perspectives to the table, often helping to increase knowledge sharing and creative problem-solving.

However, it’s also true to say that different age groups have different ways of working, use different kinds of language, and have different cultural references and touchpoints that can lead to what behavioural scientists call uneven 'generational alignment'.

For instance, older team members may struggle to understand what Millennials and the new entrant Gen-Z employees are talking and thinking about, while both older and younger generations alike can feel frustrated by the opposing generation’s ‘this is the way things should be done’ attitudes to work.

Surveys have shown that generational differences are very real when it comes to workplace communications and employment expectations, and it has been shown that age-based miscommunication slows down production and relationship-building in the workplace, which makes it a live issue for management.

It’s clear that these issues of intergenerational communication go way beyond the younger generation’s embrace of new technology and digital media.

So how do you bridge the gaps and encourage a more inclusive style of communication?

What are the four different cohorts working today?

Four cohorts have been identified that are currently working today, each with their preferred way of working and communicating.

  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

Older Baby Boomers tend to be comfortable with stable management hierarchies and value loyalty and respect, and are likely to feel more comfortable with face-to-face communications (although they are also comfortable with phone calls).

  • Generation X (born 1965-1976)

Gen-Xers value greater work-life balance and friendships over work relationships, more so than their Baby Boomer predecessors. They’re big team players who put their faith in people first, not necessarily the company. They prefer emails over phone calls.

  • Millennials (born 1977-1995)

This age group expect to work with technology that facilitates collaboration and teamwork; their workplace loyalties are likely to be more flexible and they will be motivated by guidance and approval. This is the generation that is championing better mental health at work.

  • Generation Z (born 1996-)

This cohort expects communications in the workplace to be tech-enabled and instant, and they are far more likely to get impatient with long drawn-out explanations from older colleagues. Gen Z may make up the smallest percentage of any of these groups, but their number is growing year-on-year.

[Sources: Cohoots, Office By Eptura]

From the above, it’s clear that each age group has a different way of working, different expectations and different things that make them anxious if these expectations are not met.

With many new phrases, colloquialisms, and cultural reference points to consider, the idea of attempting to communicate with a younger cohort might fill a person from the Baby Boomer or Generation X age group with dread. 

Read more about RIBA's Engagement Overlay to the Plan of Work

How to improve intergenerational communication

‘Intergenerational differences have gone on since the beginning of time,’ says coach and founder of Fast Track To Fearless, Tracy Forsyth.

‘Think how different culture has become from the Victorians onwards and how each generation had their own ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Every generation thinks it knows best and that the older generation is out of touch, while the older generation is going to want the younger generation to conform.’

Forsyth adds that there is a fear in the older generation about being dismissed out of hand (or 'cancelled' in the modern parlance) if they don’t get it right. And this has real life implications – loss of job, reputation and even livelihood. 

‘It’s important you get communication right,’ Forsyth reaffirms. ‘Remember, we are now in a digital age and even if you’ve resisted the lure of everything social media, the rest of the world has not.’ 

Forsyth has dispensed some recommendations for older team members who are starting to feel constrained about expressing their opinions, or worse, worried to speak up for fear of putting a foot wrong:

  • Have an open mind. The world changes. Be curious about those changes. Take a look at what’s positive about those changes.
  • Accept that just because you are older, you don’t know everything. No-one does. In the same way that my 86-year-old mum still tells me what to do (some of which is right, some not), accept that you too will be right about some things and not about others.
  • Listen to understand and not just to get your point across. You won’t ever really understand if you don’t listen properly, without interrupting, without trying to interject with the other’s point of view. Two ears, one mouth – so listen more, talk less.
  • If in doubt, ask questions. For example: ‘Can I check? Can you explain further? From your point of view, what do you think about?’ Repeat what you’ve heard without judgement, make sure you’ve understood the perspective even if you don’t agree with it.
  • Come clean about not understanding. For instance: ‘I’m not quite sure what the right thing to say is and I don’t want to offend anyone, can you guide me?’
  • If you make a mistake, acknowledge it as soon as you can and put it right. We are all learning. Even some of my younger queer friends acknowledge they aren’t quite sure of the right thing to say 100% of the time.

Being in a creative industry, older architects have to cope with changing language as well as rapidly-developing technology.

‘Culture, society and ways of thinking are constantly changing, so it’s no good thinking “well in my day…” because what was acceptable in your day may be totally different now. For example, when I grew up, using the word “queer” was a no-no, and a real insult. Nowadays, it can be a positive word,’ says Forsyth, by way of example.  

Intergenerational differences will always exist in practice as well as in the wider workplace, but tolerance and understanding of other age groups’ ways of working, speaking and expectations mean it doesn’t have to be a case of never the twain shall meet.

Thanks to Tracy Forsyth, coach and founder of Fast Track To Fearless

This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Inclusive environments.

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