“OK Boomer” is a catchphrase that summarises the feelings of frustration that younger generations have towards the older generations, in particular — Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). The phrase started as an internet meme that was popularised on TikTok, and shot to global prominence towards the end of 2019.
One Millennial lawmaker has even used the phrase in the New Zealand parliament, sparking a flurry of debate on the implications of using “OK Boomer” in the workplace. Some have argued that the phrase itself is inherently ageist, as it perpetuates generational and age-based stereotypes.
“OK Boomer” highlights the unwillingness of Gen Z-ers and Millennials to communicate with members of a different generation. The widespread prevalence of this phrase brings the larger issue of intergenerational differences and communication barriers into the foreground.
Intergenerational communication differences
An independent survey commissioned by Randstad Singapore found that 41% of respondents aged 18 to 34 find it difficult to communicate with mature workers (55+). Almost one-third (31%) from the same group of respondents go as far as to avoid communicating with mature workers.
As a result of the unprecedented presence of up to five generations in the workplace today, the issue of intergenerational communication and collaboration has proven to be a tough HR challenge. When multiple generations work together in one place, miscommunication is inevitable, but it should not lead to the unwillingness to give it a try.
This reluctance to communicate spells disaster for employers, as effective communication is imperative for organisations to conduct their activities smoothly.
Communication styles vary across generations. When dealing with a multigenerational workforce, it is vital for companies to be aware of the different working styles of each generation and diversify their channels of communication.
For example, traditionalists and baby boomers would generally prefer to communicate with each other either face-to-face or through phone calls. This is contrary to Gen X-ers and Millennials who favour digital platforms such as Slack, Whatsapp or e-mails. Despite the common stereotype that Gen Z-ers prefer more instant means of digital communication, recent polls have found that members of Gen Z may actually prefer face-to-face communication.
How to overcome intergenerational communication barriers
One of the issues behind ageism is the lack of exposure to other people from different generations, which leads to unfamiliarity and uncertainty of how one would be perceived by another.
Miscommunication across generations has detrimental effects. When a message is miscommunicated, it can lead to wrong actions, which in turn may hinder progress. In the workplace, this can translate into lower levels of productivity and efficiency, which will cost companies in the long-term.
To ensure that members of all generations are integrated in the workplace, companies can do more to encourage cross-generational communication. Exposure to different age groups can help employees develop sensitivities to different styles of communication, reduce their biases and broaden their perspectives.
1. Reverse mentoring
Reverse mentoring is a tried-and-tested method that is practiced in many global companies, such as P&G, General Electric and Accenture. Contrary to traditional mentoring programmes where senior-level employees mentor junior colleagues, the younger employee assumes the role of the mentor in reverse mentoring programmes.
Reverse mentoring aims to facilitate shared learning between employees of different backgrounds and ages. It allows more established employees to gain a better understanding and awareness regarding the issues that younger generations are concerned about. These issues notably include hot-button topics like diversity, inclusivity and climate change. It also exposes them to newer technologies and social media platforms that they would otherwise not know of, such as search engine optimisation and social media platforms like TikTok.
Such cross-generational initiatives help facilitate interactions between members of different generations, allowing them to come together and share their respective perspectives.
2. Shadow boards
Another strategy to increase the exposure of employees on different sides of the age spectrum is introducing shadow boards. Shadow boards consist of a group of younger non-executive employees, brought together to share their business-related insights and perspectives with senior executives.
For example, Gucci enlisted Gen Z-ers and Millennials to form a shadow committee to discuss new approaches and ideas with senior executives and industry experts. Since its implementation, Gucci’s sales have grown 136% between 2014 and 2018, a growth attributed to the success of their online strategies.
3. Multi-generational teams
Another thing companies can do to encourage cross-generational communication is to deliberately create multigenerational teams that work together on a daily basis. This maximises the levels of exposure and interaction between employees from different generations. The more employees communicate with a member of a different age group, the more those intergenerational barriers will be broken down.
As employees gain better awareness and understanding of the different intergenerational communication styles, terms that perpetuate generational stereotypes like ‘Snowflake’, ‘Strawberry Generation’ and ‘OK Boomer’ would be less likely to be thrown around.
Join companies that have diversity and inclusion policies
To maintain an engaged workforce, it is important for companies to display an inclusive corporate culture, with anti-ageist policies put in place. Many employers are able to gain a competitive edge in the search for talent because workers are drawn to their no-nonsense diversity and inclusion rules. Employees also feel a sense of safety when they work in these organisations, and are therefore, more motivated, focussed and productive at work.