Ageism

Down-aging your communication style

© Konstantin Chagin
Your communication style matters a lot when working with younger colleagues. It is beneficial for organizations to have different age ranges in their teams, however it is not always easy for different generations to be happy and productive and able to communicate well with each other.

Any mature worker is likely to be working with at least a few individuals who are a lot younger, some of which may be managers responsible for your team.

Because of how much the younger generation has taken over the workforce, how you relate with them as colleagues could have a huge impact on your career and this may start when you find them interviewing you for positions.

Here are some insights to help you navigate a multi-generational working environment:

1. Don’t be ashamed of your age

Your age is not a bad thing, even if you encounter ageism.  Your age is what you are, it is what it is, and you don’t have to hide it or feel inferior because of it.  However, some mature workers cause themselves problems by referring to themselves as “the old man” or “over the hill”.  This is expressing to your colleagues that you are less important or valuable, which is not good for your self-esteem or your working relationships.

Avoid personal sharing that would make younger colleagues uncomfortable.  This includes complaining about aches and pains or being slow to get up etc, but also about grandchildren or your hobbies or interests that they would have no connection with.

The working world is full of individuals who each have their own universe of relationships, interests and personal dramas and cross-generational sharing is not usually appropriate or professional in mixed generational workplaces.

2. Social etiquette is now different

In earlier years, listening with full attention was seen as polite and a virtue.  Nowadays millennials and other generations spend more time looking at their phones than the people they are with.  This is normal for them.  Their attention span is shorter, they are attempting to do more things at once and their priorities can be quite different.  Watch and learn how they operate with curiosity but not judgment.  To fit into the modern workplace, it is helpful to come from a place of acceptance of their culture, rather than rejection of their choices.

Endeavor to be seen as someone who is “for the team” and this includes being appreciative of others’ ideas and contribution.  A wonderful role would be to be seen as an “informal mentor” and “go-to” person when younger colleagues need help in areas only you have experience in.   Many millennials struggle with formal writing and business proposals or presentations, which you may be able to help with.  Also, you are likely to have good instincts in rocky situations based on your years of experience in your industry or profession.  This increases your value to the organization and gives you esteem among your colleagues.  Avoid using words like “in our day” which suggests living in the past rather than the present.

In many organizations there is now “reverse mentoring” where younger colleagues are instructing mature workers on modern work practices including technology.   Be open to any opportunities for reverse mentoring to keep you current and connected to best practices in all areas.

3. Talk to them as equals

You may have children their age and you may catch yourself lecturing them on how things were done when you were their age.  Or you may be inclined to suggest that they remind you of your son or daughter.

Regardless of the fact that your colleagues may seem very young to you, that doesn’t give you the right to speak to them like kids. Everybody’s role in an organization is important no matter what their age is. If you are patronizing your colleagues it can feel quite belittling to them and it’s a huge indication that you don’t have any iota of respect for them.  Worse, they will assume that your focus is on the past and your input about current and future priorities will be seen as less valuable.

See your colleagues first as individuals, secondly for their role in the organization and their age (or race) should be a much lesser consideration.   Aim to be approachable and watch and learn how the most successful communicators are opening discussions with younger colleagues.  You may get some insights that would be helpful when you need to get your own messages across or their cooperation.

4. Get to know them

In order to communicate with younger colleagues properly, it is ideal if you know something about them. Many colleagues talk about what they did on weekends and this reveals their lifestyle, hobbies, interests and their household.   Do they have pets or a wife and baby at home?

If they share some personal event, such as training for a sport, you can follow up by asking them about their progress.  If your colleagues are excited about an upcoming event such as a concert, find out who that person or band is and ask them about their music. 

Everyone has different interests and listening to other people talk about theirs builds positive relationships and helps them to get to know you better.  Even though you might not have much in common, being friendly and interested in others makes people of all ages popular.

5. Be visible

Don’t let yourself fade into the background.  Make an effort to be present at meetings and contribute ideas.  Give thought to the goals and problems of the organization and be proactive about coming up with solutions.  You have a much more in-depth experience that you can draw on and you can let your light shine in areas where you have expertise.  The format of meetings may be less formal these days but this is often more conducive to creative input. Learn to thrive in less structured environments.

It has been noted that mature workers are often more loyal to the organization and expect to stay in their roles a lot longer, while younger workers often see their role as a stepping stone to better things.  Be a good role model of someone who is a contributor and comes up with valuable suggestions.

6. Expect that you can learn from them

As everyone is an individual, we all have strengths and weaknesses, knowledge, and gaps in our knowledge.  Rather than seeing an us-and-them workplace, with younger colleagues being “them”, realize that as individuals, there may be skills and knowledge they have that may be helpful to you.

With an open mindset, there is a lot to be gained from two-way communication and if you can encourage younger colleagues to share their knowledge and experience, you are opening the door for them to ask that of you as well.

Some of the new social media sites and apps can be very useful to know about and broaden your experience in the world.  They will also help you to familiarize yourself with technological advances in your own organization.  Many mature workers are surprised to discover that some of these programs are fairly easy to learn about and use, with free information online.

Conclusion

It is often a sad fact that each generation believes their way of doing things is superior to the generation before. By embracing the best attributes of your younger colleagues’ culture and work habits, you will find your life expanded and your communications with them will be more effective and rewarding.