Boomers (in their 40s and 50s) and Xers (in their 20s and 30s) have very different communication styles and needs. In the workplace, they can drive each other crazy. Barrie Bramley provides some excellent insights into why this communication gap exists, and gives some great practical solutions for Boomers and Xers.
I often find myself in a forum, within a business context, made up of Baby Boomers (age 37-60) and Generation X (age 18-37), discussing, debating and exploring the changing working environment. Ferinstance, as Pooh Bear might say, Boomers started working in a world of permanent employment, and Xers arrived to a world of no employment guarantees. That, as you can imagine, changes the landscape dramatically, and therefore how you work your career out within it. Boomers worked for much longer periods of time within one company, than the 3-5 years of commitment we’re seeing with today’s younger work force.

Almost universally, when it comes to communication, the ‘shout out’ from both sides is an emphatic, ‘they drive me crazy’! Boomers can’t understand why Xers don’t simply walk into their office, sit down on a chair and sort the out issues face to face? Why do they have to send a short and snotty e-mail that’s devoid of emotion and ultimately the human face that boomers are after? For Xers it’s almost the exact opposite. Why do their boomer line managers insist on a meeting? Why can’t they just drop a few short lines onto the digital paper, they call e-mail, and deal with it in the few short minutes it requires? Why do these e-mailable issues continue to escalate and evolve into mini-bosberaads (substitute with ‘offsite’, ‘away day’, ‘legotla’, ‘team build’ or ‘imbizo’ depending on what you’re comfortable with or what part of the planet you come from – they’re basically all the same)

May I, for global boardroom peace (we all have to do our bit) offer up the following by way of explanation, to hopefully help to bridge the gap of understanding that currently exists.

For many Boomers (older ones especially, of which I am not one), they would have entered a business world with no mobile-phones, no e-mail and no fax machines. It was a world of pulse dialing, long distance operators and the telex. The post office even played a prominent role in their world (for those younger than 30, a post office was an ancient data clearing house – see for more details)

Boomers learned that the most efficient way to solve any issue was to walk into someone’s office, sit across from them, look them in the eyes and then actually speak to resolve the issue on the table. One understands why they’d think this an efficient method when you consider that not everyone had a phone on their desk, and certainly none had one in their pocket or handbag.

However, when a long distance conversation was needed, they moved up the technology food chain to the telephone. Depending on the exact year and the distance involved, they might have had to book a call through our customer centric and very efficient national telecon (see for more details). I have heard it sometimes took up to four hours to place that call, and if you missed the operator’s call to you, they would put you at the back of the queue. Another four hour wait.

And finally, if you couldn’t place a call, then you’d have to fall back on writing. Writing wasn’t inefficient because they couldn’t write back then. It was the technology that got in the way. Either the Post Office or the Telex (to be honest I’m not actually sure how this particular technology worked or if it even did?).

So the Boomer learned very quickly that face to face communication was the most efficient and effective way to resolve an issue. Telephones were second, and writing a distant third. For many Boomers this is still the case.

Enter the Xer. That very cynical and technology savvy creature, who walks, no struts around your office as if he owns the place. In fact in today’s environment, he might just. The world, as we suggested in the first paragraph has changed. The business environment even more so. Xers have learned a very different thinking process when it comes to prioritising efficient communication.

Writing is by far their choice for efficient communication. And their writing is delivered via e-mail. It’s arrives instantly (near enough), can be just a few lines, doesn’t need a greeting or a salutation, and is devoid of emotion (that’s the problem lament the Boomers). If they can’t e-mail, and they know the person well enough, then they’ll SMS. Of course this is fraught with its own set of problems. SMS uses an alphabet without vowels (only 21 letters at last count). No word can be longer than 5 letters, and grammar and spelling don’t count.

If they can’t write then they’ll use the next most efficient form of communication, being the phone. Not a landline if they can help it (you may not be at your desk). It’s mobile to mobile. They’d prefer your voice mail, because otherwise they’d have to actually engage in a real conversation.

And finally if phones aren’t an option they will resort to the least efficient form of communication, the ‘face to face conversation’. Keep in mind that at this point they’ll be very aware they’re going to have to be both, in the same vicinity as another human being, and that there wont be any technology between them to take off the edge and strip away the emotion. Panic begins to set in.

And the rest, as they say is history.

A simplistic, I am aware, framework to understand why older and younger sets within the work place often struggle to have productive conversations. Both groups set out to achieve the holy grail of ‘communication efficiency’, but as long as these two sets have to communicate with each other, it’s probably never going to materialise. Simply because what each group is good at, is where the other is really bad.

Today’s younger set, generally speaking, do not have Boomer interpersonal skills, confidence or comfort when engaging face to face with another human being. Especially with someone who’s a generation or two older. They have lots to learn from those that have gone before them.

Equally, today’s older set have a fair distance to go to understand how to communicate like an Xer via e-mail. For example, when you have 10 things you want done, don’t send all 10 in one e-mail. Xers treat e-mail like a to-do list. They scan to the first request, do it, and the e-mail is deleted. Task done. If you have 10 things, send 10 e-mails (one item per mail).

Until they begin to learn the highly refined skill of the other, I’m afraid we’re going to have to listen to their cries of frustration, ‘they drive me crazy’.


There are many of these sorts of obstacles that keep Boomers and Xers from getting things done with each other. These are the many things that Barrie does day in and day out with companies (full of Boomers and Xers) all over South Africa, and from time to time, the rest of the planet.

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