The Silent Treatment—Between Gen Zers and Boomers

Forty percent of workers over 55 haven’t spoken to a Gen Zer at work in a year, and one in five Gen Z to someone over 50. Why corporate leaders should be worried.

Echo chambers are the norm these days, on social media and among friend groups. But in the corporate world, a lack of communication can be a significant issue. And apparently it is—between those just entering the workforce and those slowly heading out.

According to a disturbing new survey from LinkedIn, some 40% of employees over age 55 haven’t directly spoken to a Gen Z employee in the last year. And one in 5 Gen Zers haven’t spoken to someone over fifty. The stark numbers are the latest example of a generation gap that experts say leaders can no longer ignore. “I can’t stress enough that this matters,” says Sharon Egilinsky, partner in the Organizational Strategy and Business Sustainability practices at Korn Ferry. In the absence of direct conversation, messaging or indirect communication invariably leads to “miscontextualization and misinterpretation, even among really skilled written communicators,” she says. The risk of misunderstanding is so high that some companies have required executives to handle complex issues face-to-face.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for communication problems when direct communication wanes. Young employees lose out on the training that comes with interacting with experienced staffers. More broadly, the sequestering of age groups can be a precursor to ageism, as sociologists have long pointed out. 

Not to suggest that in decades past, twentysomethings ever chatted up their elders regularly; indeed, the phrase “generation gap” is eighty years old. But back then, employees worked together in offices, and everyone relied on face-to-face and phone communication. Today people younger than 35 won’t necessarily answer a ringing phone. “Gen Zers are using different modalities of communication than boomers, and it lessens the chance of communication happening at all,” says Deepali Vyas, global head of the FinTech, Payments and Crypto practice at Korn Ferry. Some experts say the silent treatment has less to do with generational issues per se than with the conflict between one group’s reliance on newer technology and another group’s preference for older methods. 

“The reality is that younger employees grew up on screens, that’s what they are always looking at,” says Kyle Marcum, a senior analyst for operations and go-to-market strategy at Korn Ferry. “Even when they’re with each other, they’re still on their phone.” He says he’s not surprised this group finds texting less stressful than talking on the phone or in person. “Given the anxiety, from their perspective, why would they talk to any over 50 who’s not their boss?” he asks.

Change won’t come easy, but experts say that for cross-generational communication to flourish, there has to be more to communicate about. This is an organizational challenge, says Dennis Deans, vice president for human resources at Korn Ferry, and not a new one: Entry-level employees don’t often have tasks in common with executives. “It’s about finding commonalities to communicate about, and bridging gaps so that both groups can wrap their heads around it and have a fruitful discussion,” Deans says.

Diversity and inclusion specialists advise approaching this May-December failure as a matter of cross-cultural communication. “You need to understand your own communication style and preferences, understand theirs, and then negotiate the differences,” says Andrés Tapia, global diversity and inclusion specialist at Korn Ferry. He adds that it’s everyone’s responsibility to be inclusive of one another, and that this might involve embracing the communication preferences of another generation—which can provide a bit of a lift. More reliance on different communication tools, such as video, could be helpful. Boomers often have a lot to say, but not enough time to write it down, and thus may be open to using video instead; Gen Zers find storytelling engaging, and are also well-versed in video. “Both Gen Z and Boomers want to communicate—and there might be a middle ground,” says Vyas.


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