Generational Transition at Work


Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

On Thursday, August 17, we hosted our first conversation on "Communicating Across Generations," a concern we know is facing businesses large and small as our workforce continues to transition to a new phase of leadership.

In preparing for this workshop, we suspected that many stereotypes about the different generations tend to be exaggerated. That suspicion was borne out by information from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). One DEED report looks at the issue of job turnover and job-hopping, which is often associated with millennials. In fact, workers aged 14-34 had a lower rate of turnover than their counterparts did in 1999. "Turnover is much more a reflection of labor market conditions and less a reflection of generational personalities," the DEED report says.

A lot of generational conflicts can simply be attributed to the priorities that come with being at different life stages. That said, such differences can still be a source of negative biases and clashing approaches to work. Another report from DEED notes, "Generational issues can affect recruiting, building teams, dealing with change, motivating, managing, increasing productivity, and retaining workers."

The "Communicating Across Generations" conversation reinforced that it's not just a cliche: Some younger workers really do assume their elders have nothing to teach them, and some older people really do shake their heads at younger coworkers' love of flexibility and vacations. We heard that at one company, even when employees are paired up with older mentors, they're often quick to shrug off the relationship.

It was disappointing to hear that, because we know that all age groups have something to offer in the workplace. We often refer to the "two loops," a model developed by the Berkana Institute that illustrates the process of an old system declining while a new one takes its place. 


As you can see in the diagram, there's a point of overlap where the new system is coming in while the old system is still finishing out its cycle. The goal should be to build a bridge from the old to the new. We sometimes call it "composting" the old to fuel the new system's growth.

That's the opportunity available to workplaces facing generational transition: They can take advantage of this period of overlap to fully harvest the contributions and wisdom of employees approaching retirement, while recognizing what new leaders have to offer and setting them up for success. 

Hosting "Communicating Across Generations" was a good reminder that this process doesn't happen overnight: It takes long-term investment, communication, and thoughtful leadership.

Knowing that leadership development goes beyond a two-hour workshop, we are referring attendees to a three-day, in-depth training on collaborative leadership this fall. The training will be held in St. Paul and led by stewards of the Art of Hosting, a framework for collaboration and community engagement that helps practitioners facilitate meaningful, productive conversations. More information will be coming soon, but for now, save the dates of November 13-15, and contact for more information!

In the meantime, we'd love to keep hearing from people about the generational transitions you're seeing at work. How is your organization adapting to change? What are the challenges? What new opportunities are you seeing with this new phase of leadership? Share your thoughts in the comments!