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I looked around the other day and realized that RW3 CultureWizard is one of those workplaces that has five generations! I was surprised because I hadn’t fully realized how generationally diverse we are. And it suddenly occurred to me that working with five generations side-by-side presents exactly the same kinds of intercultural communication challenges and cross-cultural awareness demands that come up when co-workers are multi-culturally diverse.

Like different cultures, generations have different expectations of appropriate behavior. And, as in any intercultural communication, misunderstandings are likely to arise because of those differences. Only heightened cross-cultural awareness can ameliorate those misunderstandings.

So, more specifically, what do I mean?

Raising Awareness of Cross-Cultural ‘Generational Diversity’

There are five generations active in today’s workplace, and each of them has unique behaviors and values. Here are the general working definitions of this multicultural melting pot, according to the Pew Research Center (other experts):

· Silent or Traditionalist Generation (born 1928-1945)

· Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

· Generation X (born 1965-1980)

· Generation Y, a.k.a, Millennials (born 1981-1997)

· Generation Z (born after 1997)

Let’s raise our own generational cross-cultural awareness by exploring some high-level differences across the five generations, along with the reasons those differences exist.

The Traditionalist, or Silent,generation was shaped by the travails of the Great Depression and World War 2. They have a strong sense of rules and order, frugality, and hard work.

Baby boomerswere shaped by post WW2 prosperity and optimism, a clear sense of right and wrong, political activism and idealism. They expected more than their parents and rebelled against authority. They focused on experimentation, extreme hard work, and the desire for visible signs of their success in the world. The sheer size of this group gave them the sense that their values and expectations were permanent – they would always be taken into consideration.

Gen Xers saw the birth of technology and computerization for everyone, the moon landing, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism. They experienced unprecedented numbers of divorce, two working parents, and parents who were downsized during corporate restructuring. They are known to be focused on their rights as individuals, are entrepreneurial, creative, and the first group to question loyalty to a company. They have a respect for diversity, value independence, are egalitarian, and while not as “rebellious” as Baby Boomers, view authority figures as irrelevant.

Millennials were the first generation to be more indulged by parents and grow up in an ever-more prosperous environment. They came of age with the internet and expectations of quick communication, September 11th, and rapid global expansion. But they also experienced massive college debt and tough times when looking for jobs. They have close relationships with their parents and are perhaps more self-focused; as a result, they value work-life balance.

Gen Z, sometimes also called“Digital natives,” experienced on-the-go mobile technology in every aspect of their life; it has shaped their definition of “relationships” and expectations for immediacy. Gen Z grew up during uprisings in the Middle East, the Great Recession, and massive numbers of home foreclosures. They seem more dedicated to personal success, financial security, and hard work to avoid the hardships of debt and terror. More realistic than Millennials, it’s estimated by experts that they will have 17 jobs in their lifetime and will need to keep evolving their skills to stay relevant.

Wow. Welcome to the Five Generation Workplace!

Generational ‘Cross-Cultural’ Change is Accelerating

We all know that society is changing, and the rate of change is accelerating. We have always said that cultures are slow to change, but now that isn’t quite so true. Cultures that took hundreds of years to form traditional behaviors are now rapidly evolving with each new generation. This may be unique in history. With everything connected to everything else, changes in technology, globalization, and world events accelerate the rate of cultural change and alter the expectations of new entrants to the workforce. This creates a rising need for cross-cultural awareness training addressing generational differences, so that misunderstandings can be avoided, and workplaces can be more productive.

It’s not only that the generations have grown up with events that have had significant influence, in part, because they are widely experienced by the entire society thanks to mass media and shared technology. It’s also that the coming together of 20-year-olds with 80-year-olds who share business objectives and collaborate on projects influence each other and are changing society and culture. When they come together, 20-somethings and 80-somethings with greater cross-cultural awareness of their different generational attitudes and beliefs can have far more productive conversations.

Think about it: Culture is formed by a country’s history, traditions, mythology, heroes and legends. Those are the things that are traditionally passed from generation to generation and reinforced by our educational systems. The rapid and dramatic changes happening in the world, and the impact that those have on people during their formative years, are also reflected in culture. Now, the dramatic impact of technology (particularly mobile technology), the rapidity with which we receive information, and our changing expectations of workplace behavior cuts across generations and impacts on everyday actions and deeply held cultural values.

Take for example Motivation in the workplace. The CultureWizard Intercultural Model® describes the Motivation Dimension in a spectrum from work/Status focused on one side to work-life Balance focused on the other. While Traditionalists sought security and loyalty and Baby Boomers were motivated by hard work and the accompanying rewards, Gen Xers and Millennials aspire to a quality lifestyle and work-life flexibility. Yet, now it appears that Gen Zs may be shifting back, apparently motivated by stability and security as a reaction to the turmoil they experienced growing up during fallout from the Great Recession of 2008, for example with many parents’ loss of jobs and homes. All these behaviors associated with Motivation have changed.

The fact that five generations with different values collaborate and learn how to work together is a great lesson for those of us involved in cross-cultural awareness training. Our exposure to other “cultures” as we work in teams that encompass many generations is great training for working in increasingly multicultural workplaces!

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