A frequent question I get asked by delegates is ‘How do I talk to the younger generations?’ These may be labelled as Millennials, Gen Y, Z or Alpha. Isn’t this a question that every older generation asks? Did our preceding generation not worry about what television, free love, and rock and roll was doing to us and how could they talk to us about these things? I remember my grandmother believed children should be seen and not heard. The Who sang Talkin Bout My Generation and I recently saw a description of an episode of ‘Bless This House’ from 1963, which said Syd James struggles to talk to his teenage children.
Change happens and the speed of change is getting ever faster, so what we grew up with and what we expected has moved on apace. Values differ and the amount of information that is available for young people today is unprecedented, which can create a generation gap for communication.
What do we already know?
The new generations are digital natives and are comfortable, if not addicted, to their technology and social media. Even my 13-month-old granddaughter can take selfies and wants to use her parents’ mobile phones. This can be a bit scary for some of us who are less au fait with it all.
In general, the younger people are more environmentally conscious and inclusive than previous generations. They can take offence at remarks which were deemed acceptable a few decades ago. It can present a minefield of what you can and can’t say. Values are important to them and they can challenge the ethics of the place they work. They are more likely to ask; ‘why should I be led by you?’ Their respect must be earned rather than it is a given due to job title.
With their fast paced world, time for holding attention is getting shorter. You need to work fast to get your message across and make it stick, before they are checking their smartphones, going on-line, have digital distractions and move onto the newest thing.
There also seems to be a change in attitude, perhaps from seeing their parents work hard and then get made redundant or lose their pension, that this generation works to live rather than lives to work. This can create a clash of attitude in the workplace.
How can we communicate?
In trying to answer this question, I decided to ask the relevant people and got the opinions of local students in Weymouth and Portland. Their responses are below. Although not a large survey, it gives some idea of their thinking. From two different schools, the results were very similar. (The larger and bolder the word, the more people wrote it.) Further surveys have been done by other organisations.
The main themes are equally, fairly, politely and respectfully. Isn’t that what most of us want? If you look at David Rock’s SCARF model based on neuroscience of the brain’s needs, it is about maintaining status, having certainty, being given autonomy to choose, relatedness and fairness.
We may need to think about our attitude to talking with the younger generations. What is it that we find difficult about these conversations and why is that difficult for us?
“Treat people as they are, and they remain that. Treat them as though they were what they can be, and we help them become what they are capable of becoming”.Goethe
Perception versus reality
What is our perception of young people today and how do they see us? Our perceptions can seem very real and become our reality, but the two are not the same. I hate to hear some of the terms used like ‘snowflake’, because they are deemed not to have mental resilience. This is a serious reflection of our society and not a failing of young people, which is being addressed by some.
I asked the young people how they perceive we see them. It was a very sobering response with inexperienced, lazy, quiet and belittled coming out most strongly. By belittled they meant that they are looked down on.
If that is how they think they are seen, then is it any wonder they arrive at the workplace defensive and on the back foot? How they see themselves is very different. Perhaps we need to explore this more and give them greater credit.
What can we learn from this?
As potential employers, we need these people in the workplace. We could get involved with schools more, so that we can understand the expectations and aspirations of this generation better and help set expectations of the working environment. I have certainly found it enlightening to go and speak with these young people.
We need to take a good look at our current prejudices and judgements and lay them aside until we have factual evidence. We also have to recognise the changes we need to make internally to keep pace with the world they face.
As with any interaction, we need to treat people fairly and honestly as individuals; with respect, empathy and kindness; whilst establishing certainty of expectations from both sides.
I would love to hear your experiences and views on this. Please comment on how you feel or think we should be talking with the younger generations, because they are our future.