From Boomers to Zoomers: Crossing the communication divide at work

By Alistair Gardiner
Published January 22, 2024

Key Takeaways

These days, it's fairly common to have up to five different generations of workers under one roof at your clinic or hospital. And, while every individual is different, each generation shares particular characteristics—whether Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, or Zoomers.

Sociologist Karl Mannheim summarized the generation theory back in the 1950s, positing that those born in the same era have a similar set of fundamental experiences, and are significantly influenced by the socio-historical environment and events of their youth. As a result, generational groups are to some extent bound by similar attitudes, ideas, values, and beliefs.

But this knowledge isn’t merely academic—it can be applied to improve communication in the workplace.

Crossing the generational divide

Baby Boomers tend to be direct, preferring face-to-face interactions with a lot of details and background information, while Millennials prefer more informal, digital communication with an emphasis on text, instant message, and email. Then there are those from Gen X, Gen Z, and the Silent Generation, all of whom have distinct predilections for interacting with others.

Here's a look at the widely different communication styles typically associated with these groups, according to research. Of note: Definitions of birth years delineating different generations vary depending on the source, thus birth years are approximate.

The Silent Generation (born 1928–1945)

Also known as traditionalists, this cohort makes up under 10% of the workforce, according to research published by Walden University.[] The author states that the youngest members of this generation tend to be “fair, impartial, and skilled communicators and mediators who are uncomfortable with direct and aggressive advocacy.”

The Silent Generation brings its traditionalist views into the workplace, with preferences for hierarchical structures and command-and-control leadership. This cohort, which has a strong respect for authority, doesn’t respond well to ambiguity and change, and tends to be uncomfortable with conflict. 

An article in The Rheumatologist points out that this generation tends to keep their thoughts to themselves, which means a one-on-one communication approach works well.[] Formal communication also works well with this cohort, with an emphasis on rules and structure.

Considering that the youngest members of this age group are 76 years old, they are unlikely to be your colleagues. But communicating well with the Silent Generation is key, as many are sure to be your patients.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

Reluctant to retire, Baby Boomers still make up one-third of the workforce, which means proper communication is key. While Boomers retained some of the traditional characteristics from the generation preceding them, they also grew up witnessing the shortcomings of authority, and thus tend to have a slight distrust of government and corporations. Known as workaholics, Boomers value face-to-face communication and prefer teamwork, collaboration, and group decision-making, according to the Walden University research.

An article published in Entrepreneur notes that Boomers appreciate formal communication, and are happy to use phones and email.[] The aforementioned Rheumatologist article states that, having experienced a lot of changes through their careers, Boomers anticipate flexible thinking from their colleagues.

They’re not afraid to be outspoken, so don’t expect them to hold back during a conversation. 

Generation X (born 1965–1980)

Members of Generation X, also known as the MTV generation or the "latchkey" generation, were often left alone as children—an experience that yielded an autonomous and entrepreneurial streak. According to the aforementioned Walden University research, the independent and individualistic spirit of Gen Xers means they do not respond well to micromanagement.

Members of Gen X like to work in flexible, stimulating, and challenging environments, and they tend to excel when their supervisors engage in coaching and provide timely feedback. After growing up during a tech revolution involving video games and gadgets, Gen Xers prefer to communicate using technology, which they employ as part of their problem-solving approach.

According to the Entrepreneur article, Gen Xers prefer informal and flexible communications but appreciate professional etiquette. They often use email, phone, text, or social media. Unlike the Boomers before them and the Millennials who came after, Gen Xers are more reticent to express an opinion without being asked—so don’t be afraid to ask for their thoughts.

Millennials (born 1981–1996)

By 2024, Millennials (also known as Gen Y) will make up 34% of the US workforce. According to the Walden University research, this generation was the first to grow up with complete access to the internet and smartphones, which has left them less inclined toward face-to-face communication.

Gen Y members are, however, skilled at multitasking. They like to be team players and collaborators.

This generation is often seen as being “self-educated,” due to being internet natives, and they tend to be willing to work any time and any place. Millennials will not blindly follow and, perhaps more than any other generation, will not hesitate to voice concerns and opinions during conversation.

Similar to Gen X, Gen Y members like to have continuous feedback, with a predilection for firm deadlines. It goes without saying that they prefer digital communications, including instant messaging, text messaging, and emails, in the workplace. (Slack, anyone?)

The Entrepreneur article notes that Millennials like authentic and fast communications over etiquette and tradition. The Rheumatologist article adds that this generation wants daily communication,—and plenty of feedback. 

Gen Z/Zoomers (born 1997-2012)

Due to their young age, far less literature has been published on the professional conduct of Generation Z (also known as Zoomers), but this generation is now beginning to enter the workforce. Even more so than Millennials, Zoomers use technology as an extension of themselves. It’s no surprise, then, that they like to communicate through text, email, and social media.

In the workplace, Zoomers can process large amounts of information quickly and expect instant feedback. According to the Walden University research, they are less likely to change or adjust their views compared with previous generations. They also tend to avoid direct conflict and disagreements. Additionally, gaining and holding the attention of this generation may be challenging.

So, it may come as a surprise to learn that a majority of Gen Z prefers to communicate face to face. According to the Rheumatologist article, this fulfills their desire for authenticity—something that their social media feeds might not deliver.

Read Next: Providing the best care across the generations—and it’s not one-size-fits-all
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