Bridging the Generational Divide

For nearly a decade, Canadian employment projections have been calling for a so-called “grey wave” – an en masse retirement of the Baby Boom generation. But as the first cohort of Baby Boomers turned 65 in 2011, many of them are choosing to stay in the workforce well into their golden years. For many future health care professionals, this means graduating into a multi-generational workforce where values, styles of communication and career expectations have been influenced by decades of economic and social change.

“The environment we grew up in shapes our lives in more ways than most of us realize,” says Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) and a 1997 Michener alumna.

Christine was back at Michener to speak to the Medical Laboratory Students’ Society (MLSS) on generational diversity in the workplace, instructing how to communicate both with patients and colleagues from different generations.

Be flexible with your communication style

“Not everyone likes the same style of communication as you,” says Christine. Age affects how people communicate both in style and method, for example. According to Christine, this extends to colleagues and, for health care professionals, their patients.

“When you get to the lab, you’ll find patients who are your parents’ or your grandparents’ age. They speak differently from the informality Gen Y is used to.”

An older generation might be comfortable with more formal communication in a professional environment. Younger generations, who feel work is meant to be a social as well as professional environment, are more partial to casual communication – sometimes laced with swearing, slang or other generational jargon. (Regardless of generation, swearing and slang is still best to be avoided, Christine cautions.)

In the workplace, varying levels of formality can mean the difference between popping by your supervisor’s office unexpectedly and sending an email to request a meeting.

“Scheduled, face-to-face communication is preferred for Baby Boomers,” says Christine.

Gen Xers, meanwhile, prefer limited face-to-face communication. “Generation X values efficiency. Email them, but do not call to see if they got your email.”

Understand how others see it

Having an understanding of the environment in which other generations came of age is important for cross-generational diversity. Where Baby Boomers grew up with post-war economic growth and prosperity, Generation X grew up in the deep recession of the 1970s. Christine, a self-identified Gen Xer, maintains that her generation is less likely to feel a sense of workplace loyalty.

“Jobs were scarce when I graduated,” she says. “Your employer wasn’t loyal to you and you weren’t loyal to them.”

“Generation Y grew up in a child-centric era where they were told they could achieve anything,” says Christine. She acknowledges that this is the result of their Baby Boomer parents vowing to raise their children differently from how they were raised. What this means, however, is that well-intentioned Gen Ys might try to communicate in a way that shows they’re taking initiative, but can instead be interpreted as insubordination.

Christine advises that young health care professionals can use an understanding of generational differences to be flexible in their style of communication with both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

“Baby Boomers don’t believe they will ever get old,” she adds. “They’ve been very influential before, and they will be again.” Christine adds that this will very likely have a positive effect on the quality of care that Baby Boomers receive as they age, influencing better health care for the senior population.

Still, Christine is looking forward to what the future holds for the next generation.

“As Baby Boomers start to retire, I am looking forward to seeing Gen X and Gen Y move rapidly into senior leadership positions. Some will take the challenge and run with it. It’s amazing what you can do with a little support from others.”