In this week's blog: Older and younger generations differ in what they see as acceptable smartphone use - this is just one of the ways in which worlds can collide in a multi-generational workforce. These kinds of clashes are only going to increase as the workplace becomes increasingly age-diverse:

“Can you help me fix my bike?”

A friend of mine had just opened the door to his flat. Before him stood a young boy, no older than 12- or 13-years-old, from the flat above.

The boy had punctured a tyre and his mother had sent him to the neighbour to get some help.

The chap, who is in his 50s, was happy to oblige, but he later told me that he was astonished by one thing – which has important implications for every workplace.

You’ll be surprised to hear what it was…

According to my friend, the boy never actually looked at him while asking for help. He was too busy looking at his phone.

And it was the same story while my friend fixed his bike. Instead of talking to him, the boy was surfing the Internet and texting his friends.

My friend described to me how frustrated he was, initially, by the boy’s rude behaviour. He was helping him, but the boy seemed oblivious and ungrateful.

But on reflection, he changed his mind.

lightbulbHe came to realise that it wasn’t the boy’s fault. The younger generation of “digital natives” are attached to their phones in a way which is inconceivable to people who did not grow up with mobiles in their pockets.

It is their primary way of communicating, and of feeling and staying connected to their wider circle.

Last year, Ofcom’s ‘A decade of Digital Dependency’ report showed that older and younger generations differ in what they see as acceptable smartphone use. For example, those aged 15-24 spend four hours a day using their phone on average, compared with 2 hours 49 minutes for all other adults. The 15-24 age group were also found to check their phones every 8.6 minutes - more frequently than any other age group.

So it wasn’t a question of manners. This generation considers it normal to communicate digitally, even when they are face-to-face with someone else.

Listening to this story, it occurred to me that in a few years’ time, these two people could one day become co-workers.

What would their encounter be like in the office?

We don’t have to guess, because these two worlds already regularly collide, and sometimes struggle to understand each other, in the workplace.

eyeI can already see the “digital native” – by now in his early 20s – sitting in meetings, fiddling with his phone and texting during other people’s presentations.

And I can equally visualise the older worker sitting opposite him at the table, silently fuming and condemning his young colleague for being rude… “Not a team player.”

Or the younger worker sitting at his desk, simultaneously working on his computer, sending a
text message and watching a movie playing, in the background, on an iPad.

The older worker who is trying, in vain, to attract their attention, gets increasingly annoyed.

They conclude that their younger colleague is distracted and cannot perform his job.

These kinds of clashes are only going to increase as there is an influx of “digital natives” into the workplace, especially as the older generation is working far longer before retiring.

So how can you help these co-workers work together, respectfully and productively?

yellow-hand-heart-1First, my generation must accept the truth articulated by my friend who fixed the boy’s bike.

The younger generation are not being rude, egocentric or difficult when they communicate with people on their phone, even if they are in the room – or in conversation – with someone else standing right in front of them.

It’s simply the way they are. The norms of communication have changed, and we are not going to reverse that.

But beyond that, we need to continue fostering a workplace which recognises the skills and insight each group brings to the table.

The non-digital natives have years of industry knowledge and life experience to share. And the digital natives have – amongst other things – a deep understanding of technology and how it is used in the modern world.

Both are valuable. Both must be equally respected.

And where the generations inevitably do collide, we need to mentor and help people through those situations, so that the parties can see each other for what they are, and be generous about each other – instead of getting caught up in stereotypes and misunderstandings.

There is much to be said about the challenges and benefits of integrating millennials (or as you’ve seen I prefer to call them, digital natives) into our companies.

So after several weeks of talking about the ageing workforce, I’m going to focus on this younger generation in my next few emails.

In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you: Do you agree that we should accept that digital natives communicate differently? Or should we try and change their phone habits at work?

Please drop me a line and let me know!

Posted by Steve Butler

Topics: Next Generation Savings

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