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Leadership at All Levels

Understanding Other Generations

Brenda Powell Wells | June 23, 2022

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In my various travels and visits to places far and near, I do find that one thing is universal: every generation feels compelled to absolutely gore the next generation in terms of verbal criticism.

Baby boomers thought that my generation, "Gen X," would destroy the Earth and make it uninhabitable. I hear people in Generation X constantly blaming everything on the millennial generation. And the millennials are starting to complain about the next generation, "Gen Z." Let me explain why I think that is.

My dad is now 89. I'm 54. I remember when I was a teenager and how much it bothered him and my mom that I was on the phone all the time. They let me have my own phone line but were fastidious in their refusal to spend $2 a month (or whatever it was) to get me call-waiting.

I took offense to that because all of my calls were so important that I hated to miss one! I could never comprehend why they wouldn't spring for call-waiting. What I didn't understand was that my mom and dad grew up without phones. And, when they got phones, there were "party lines" through which other people could listen in on their conversations. (You young 'uns reading this, go look up what a party line was.) And there was my spoiled self with my own phone line in the 1980s, and I was complaining about needing call-waiting. At the time, it seemed that they just didn't understand me, but I also didn't understand them.

When I was 23 or 24, I learned about email. Wow, did I love email! I stopped talking on the phone at that point and tried to put everything in an email. My son, who turns 25 this year, and his friends in their teenage years? They texted. I didn't understand that. Why would you text when you could just send an email?

Generational Change

Here's my point—I firmly believe that generational needs don't change that much. We all want the same things, and one of those is to be heard and understood. My mom and dad, who grew up without phones, believed in a handshake and a face-to-face deal. My dad's word is, and always has been, his bond. My word is also my bond, but I tend to type it out. And my son? His word is also his bond, but he will probably text it to you.

Indeed, people want to be heard and understood, but how they go about communicating changes from generation to generation. Get used to that and accept it for what it is. I've written before about the hazards of bashing the millennials. Millennials are not bad, they are not indifferent, and they are not disrespectful. They just communicate differently from you.

For what it's worth, the millennial die has been cast, and those "damned millennials" are well-established in the workforce. There're 100 million of them, so get used to their presence. They will, after all, choose your nursing home for you. And, right or wrong, their contributions to Social Security will help fund your retirement.

I recently listened to a baby boomer complain about a millennial spending time on his phone. "He needs to put his phone down and talk to people." My response is: "He IS talking to people. He's just not doing it the way you want him to."

One more thing I just want to point out about millennial bashing: If a Millennial says, "Okay, boomer," you will likely report them to Human Resources. That is, after all, a sign of age discrimination that cannot be tolerated, right? So, why is it okay for YOU to bash a millennial? That is, after all, also age discrimination. So, if you don't want the millennials making fun of you for being "old and out of touch," then don't make fun of them for whatever flaws you perceive them to have.


This summer, I celebrate 30 years in academia as a full-time, wage-earning professor. I have taught Gen X, with a few boomers sprinkled in along the way. I have taught the millennials, and now I'm teaching Gen Z, also known as the "homeland generation." I've dealt with all of these generations, and all I see that differentiates one from another is communication style. Everyone wants to be heard, respected, and appreciated. Those desires are timeless, and every generation complains about the next one. Why? I'm convinced it's because they don't like their communication style!

So, as I've said before, stop complaining about the millennials. Instead, get ready for Generation Z. They are the college students you're going to be working with very soon if you aren't already. In my next column, I'm going to explain to you who they are and the influences they've dealt with. We'll talk about how they generally think, how they communicate, and how you can appreciate the strengths they bring to the employment environment. Stay tuned!

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