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Generation X
Generation Y
Generation Z
Talent Development

Communication Across Generations: Making It Work

Life would be much simpler if we all communicated in the same way, but we don’t. Different generations, while they may all essentially want the same things, certainly don’t communicate the same way.

Life would be much simpler if we all communicated in the same way, but we don’t. Different generations, while they may all essentially want the same things, certainly don’t communicate the same way.

Whether you are trying to recruit new members, communicate in the workplace, or market your product or services, effective communication is essential to reaching your goal. Knowing how each generation communicates will bring better understanding and more effective messaging that results in a better bottom line for your business or organization.


Baby Boomers

Despite many of them being in authority positions themselves, Boomers do like to question authority and you should expect them to do so. It’s valuable to them to work as part of a team. They prefer face to face communication, but not necessarily in the form of an official meeting. Don’t call Boomers “old” and do not discount their years of experience, show them you value it.

Gen Xers

Gen Xers tend to be skeptical, so communicate with them directly, don’t make them guess what you might not be telling them. Be upfront and transparent. Feel free to challenge what they say; they’ll probably do the same to you. Gen Xers like feedback, so give it freely. When you give feedback, do so in a way that let’s them know they still have autonomy. They don’t want to wait; they’re busy, so give feedback shortly after an issue comes up while it’s still relevant to them, and be available if you need to talk to them.


Gen Y is used to being part of the conversation; keeping communication collaborative is the way to go. Expect them to work well in teams. Like Gen X, Millennials are always looking for feedback, if you aren’t giving it to them, they may think you didn’t notice their work. Continual feedback shows them their work is meaningful. Feel free to text or email Gen Y, but avoid phone calls if possible; they’re seen as invasive.


Speak how your target audience speaks, use their everyday language to reach them. Use it correctly.

The mother of a friend of mine got into trouble on Facebook not too long ago because she believed “LOL” to stand for “Lots of Love.” Might seem like an innocent mistake, but no one was laughing out loud when she was putting “LOL” on comments about someone’s husband’s cancer or someone else’s broken leg. The good news, she’s been corrected and learned a valuable lesson about communicating with Millennials.

Each generation’s jargon is formed by pop culture of their time, so sure a might Millennial know what you mean if you say “Egad,” but it’s not something they would necessarily say themselves, and therefore that message won’t reach Gen Y in the same way it reaches Baby Boomers. “Woot” is commonly used among my Gen Y friends. A gamer term originally used by players of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons that meant “Wow, loot” has been shortened to “woot” and now generally means excitement. “Woot” resonates with Millennials in a way it will never work on Baby Boomers, even if they can understand what it means.

If you want your messages to speak to all generations simultaneously, make sure you understand and are aware of what generational jargon you may be using and eliminate it.

You don’t need to learn a whole new language or talk more slowly to be understood by someone 20 years older or younger than you, but being sensitive to the differences in communication styles and language will make you a more effective communicator.

Knowing styles and lingo is one step, but the best way to break down communication barriers is to communicate; start a conversation, no matter how you do it.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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