By Cindy Fornelli, Executive Director at the Center for Audit Quality

How can we bridge generational gaps at work? How can we leverage them?

The Women in Capital Markets Initiative—which brings together leaders from across finance, academia, and policymaking—addressed these questions at a series of get-togethers in New York City and Washington, DC. Principally, the discussion explored the challenges and opportunities associated with the changing workforce, including communicating across generations, talent gaps, and how firms and managers can attract and retain talent. The events were facilitated by experts from BridgeWorks, a research and consulting firm specializing in generational dynamics.

The conversation was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, to encourage candor, but I’m pleased to share a few of the group’s insights with you.

Recognizing Generational Similarities, Differences, and Challenges

The conversation at both events began with a recap of the widely-recognized generational boundaries.

  • Millennials – Millennials are those now between the ages of 19 and 34.
  • Generation X – “Gen Xers” are those now between the ages of 35 and 50.
  • Baby Boomers – Baby boomers are those now between the ages of 51 and 66
  • Traditionalists – Traditionalists are those now over the age of 67.
  • Cuspers – “Cuspers” think of themselves as being on the edge of two of these cohorts.

Participants acknowledged that, despite the tendency to focus on generational differences, people will of course still share characteristics and commonalities. Indeed, a few participants suggested generational breakdowns or stereotypes can be exaggerated or inaccurate. “I’m really uncomfortable with the labeling,” said one Washington attendee.

By the same token, however, it is hard to deny certain generational differences. Participants agreed, for example, that varying attitudes among generations about technology—namely in the realm of mobile communications and social media—have considerable implications for the workplace. Millennials are “accustomed to being plugged in,” observed one New York attendee. A Washington participant spoke of a “fundamental difference between those who are digitally native and those of us who’ve just have pedaled to keep up.”

Perspective on Adjusting to an Evolving Workforce

In light of generational differences, the discussion in both cities touched on ways that companies and managers can adjust practices, thus helping with hiring and creating a more appealing workplace for younger people.

  • Providing more feedback: While participants recognized that the need for positive feedback (along with simple gestures of courtesy or appreciation) transcends generations, they also noted the tendency for millennials to want, even crave, such reinforcement. “What do we have to do to keep [millennials] here?” asked one of the BridgeWorks moderators. “Part of it is feedback.”
  • Thinking innovatively: Another point of agreement was the importance of staying open to change. One Washington participant shared that an effective tactic at her workplace was sending a clear message that innovation is a workplace norm and priority. “Just because we’ve done it this way for the past ten years,” she added, “doesn’t mean that we should keep doing it that way.” In New York, attendees suggested embracing new technologies that can address the desire of many millennials for flexibility in work arrangements.
  • Embracing change…but staying authentic: While adapting to norms and desires of younger generations is important, participants agreed there are limits. In the recruiting process, for example, employers with a more traditional work environment (e.g., many established financial services companies or corporate law firms) shouldn’t try to hide that fact. “When [millennials] start the job and find it’s nothing like they expected,” it was observed, “then it’s a huge problem.”
  • Mentoring: Mentoring, participants agreed, can play an essential role in overcoming generational divides. Through mentoring, shared one Washington attendee, “we’ve turned some Boomer curmudgeons around, because it’s almost like a familial relationship.”
  • Teaming: Similarly, it was observed that millennials tend to respond well to working in teams. “We grew up with the messaging of, ‘there is no I in team; two heads are better than one,’” said a millennial participant. Added another: “That’s one of the values that I would put on the list of an absolute must: Be team-oriented.”

Have generational differences been an issue in your workplace? If so, how have you addressed them? I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

A securities lawyer, Cindy Fornelli has served as the Executive Director of the Center for Audit Quality since its establishment in 2007.