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Workplace Communication: Closing the Generation Gap

Understanding generational differences can help everyone work together better.

February 17, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author


Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.

I was standing in front of my platoon giving a roll call briefing several years ago and I started scanning the room. I was talking about the usual fare-stolen vehicles, missing persons, and special patrol assignments-when I saw a lot of young empty faces staring at their yellow pads and pretending to take notes. All of a sudden it hit me that they were at best only half-listening to me.

There they were, the next generation of cops taking up space and breathing my air. I started to get angry. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt with a quick test. At one point I said, "My pants are on fire," and kept on talking about information our property detectives were looking for. Only one person looked up half heartedly, turned to the deputy sitting next to him, and asked, "Hey, did he just say his pants were on fire?" The other deputy looked over at him and said, "What did you just say?"

Needless to say, at that point, I broke into my old Army habits and went into the Sergeant Major mode, lambasting each and every one. As you can imagine it was ugly, but in my eyes it wasn't ugly enough.

You can't go old school on them because you'd end up in IA. They have the authority to use deadly force and kill if necessary, but say a curse word in front of them, and it becomes a hostile work environment. And yes, with my age combined with my years of experience, of course I talked about "back in the day" and the differences between old school and the Nintendo generation.

I stressed how they have been coddled by technology, counting on their mobile data computers and TASERs too much. About how us dinosaurs (their word for people like me) made arrests without TASERs and in-car computers, how we used to actually get out of our patrol cars, and how we actually took the time to learn our community. In my day we shook trees and kicked rocks to find the bad guy.

From Dinosaurs to Gen Y

Thinking back on what I said, I was clearly experiencing a generational divide. My philosophies are very different from the younger crowd, so in reality maybe it was more about me. So why is any generation gap such a big deal? The answer is simple and deep.

For the first time in history, we have four generations working side by side in the modern workplace. They consist of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials (also known as Generation Y or Nexters). With four different groups working together, there is bound to be a collision between each other's set of values.

When I was young back in the '60s, grown-ups talked a great deal about the generation gap. It meant the old and young didn't understand each other very well. They couldn't communicate. If men are from Mars and women from Venus, the younger crowd is from Pluto.

From what I can tell, not much has changed; in fact it might even be worse. How often have you heard, "This new generation of cops just doesn't get it...they want it all but they don't want to work for it. All they do is text and play video games." Hell, I haven't just heard it, I've said it! Or how about hearing the opposite: "Damn, this guy's a dinosaur. He must have patrolled in sandals. Will someone please tell him this isn't the military and I don't care how hard it was 20 years ago?"

Hello, my name is Amaury Murgado, I'm a retired Army Reservist, a 23-year law enforcement veteran, and yes, I am one of the Baby Boomer dinosaurs; welcome to my world as a supervisor. So what's the answer to this question of generational divide?

We wear the same uniform and are supposed to be doing the same job. But how do we deal with this total lapse in communication? I suggest we learn to communicate better by understanding that there are and will always be differences in our values. We have no choice because we are a product of the times we grow up and live in.

The main issue here is that we tend to see differences and attach judgments to them. Different is not necessarily bad. Sun Tzu's ancient writings on strategy talks about knowing your enemy and knowing yourself. In this case we are one and the same. We are all part of the problem, so let's learn about each other and, in doing so, become part of the solution.


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