Like many Americans, I am part of the “sandwich generation,” an age cohort whose members have the unique dual responsibilities of caring for their children and looking after the needs of their aging parents.
Although the sandwich dynamic is foremost a familial one, an increasingly important parallel exists in the workplace. With more Americans postponing retirement, the age gap between organizations' youngest and oldest employees continues to widen, which means more people working together who think and act in significantly different ways.
Of course, generational differences in the workplace are nothing new; however, such disparities may be as great as they've ever been due to factors such as changing values and an asymmetrical use of new technology.
For any organization to be successful, its members must communicate clearly and collaborate effectively, despite philosophical differences and behavioral preferences. Bridging the gap between a firm's most senior and most junior members is an especially challenging task, which is where the sandwich generation may be of particular value.
Those in the middle of the age extremes are uniquely qualified to understand both their organizations' most senior and junior members. While the older and younger generations tend to be culturally distant from each other, they share similarities with the mid-range cohort, making each of them culturally closer to it.
The phenomenon I'm describing is something I've experienced firsthand. When I entered the workforce after completing my business education, I worked for and with several individuals who were considerably older than I was. I know I had habits, such as the considerable time I spent using a computer, that sometimes seemed unproductive to them. At the same time, they also had ways of working that I didn't fully understand. Meanwhile, mid-age-range co-workers sometimes served as ad hoc intercessors, helping us understand and appreciate the others' behaviors.
Many years have since passed, and I now find myself in the mediating role, mainly between my traditional-age college students and the older clients they sometimes serve in our course projects. Although the contact between these two groups is limited, any communication offers opportunities for misunderstandings due to age-related differences. As I act as a sort of cultural liaison between the two, there are certainly behaviors that I do not fully understand, yet the following lists represent a few simple differences I try to help each age cohort appreciate about the other.
Students realize that the older generation often . . .
• Values professional business attire and appearance.
• Prefers a hand-written thank-you note to one sent by email.
• Appreciates when others take notes about what they say in a meeting.
• Prefers an in-person meeting to a Skype call.
• Appreciates more formal written communication (at least complete words and sentences).
• Has already experienced what you're doing and therefore can offer some special insight.
• Values loyalty and commitment.
Clients understand that the younger generation often . . .
• Uses "Hey" as an email greeting (e.g., "Hey, Mr. Brown") in order to be friendly, not disrespectful.
• Is proficient at using a wide range of technology in ways that can be very productive for work.
• Has a desire to serve a greater purpose and help others through the work they do.
• Is adept at multitasking, especially with technology.
• Craves visual stimulation.
• Seeks variety and appreciates diversity.
• Prefers a text message to a phone call.
Of course, there are many ways that organizations can foster mutual understanding and effective collaboration between their oldest and youngest cohorts. Perhaps one way is to better avail themselves of the men and women "in the middle," whose unique age-related perspective may help to bridge the generational/cultural gap.
David Hagenbuch is an associate professor of marketing and co-chairman of the department of management and business at Messiah College.