generational communication gap
© Mark Adams |

Ali Lyons, Co-Founder of 20:40 and Head of Operations at Kene Partners, shares some ideas on bridging the generational communication gap, demystifying millennials, the importance of age diversity on boards and the value of two-way mentorship

The communication gap between the generation at the start of their working life and those late into a lengthy career is greater than ever. This has far-reaching implications across business, politics and society. Bridging this gap will require better systems of communication; something that 20:40 members gathered recently to propose methods to address.

20:40 is a community of young future leaders working across government, technology, financial services and beyond. They gather quarterly to discuss and implement methods of addressing the greatest social, political and economic challenges of the next 20 years. Topics include new models for capitalism and democracy, ethical implementation of emerging technologies, diversity in the boardroom, the changing workplace and the future of education.

Demystifying millennials

There are two myths about millennials that are worth debunking. First that they are work-shy, and second that they are self-righteous. The ‘lazy’ tag has always been a confusing one. Entry standards at top universities are higher than ever, it is increasingly common and accepted that before being able to apply for full-time jobs, graduates must carry out months of unpaid ‘work experience.’ This is a generation hungry for success and, by necessity, willing to put a huge amount of work into their endeavours.

The perception of millennials as self-righteous is more nuanced. It appears to come down to a demand for better working standards, taking more care about who they work for, and how that fits into their development. Should we not strive for each generation having better living and working standards than the last? Millennials want to progress fast, feel like their development is tailored to their specific needs, and they want their contribution to be meaningful. Having grown up with higher living standards, millennials are less willing to compromise their sense of self for corporate goals.

As someone at the younger end of the millennial bracket, I was picking my GCSE subjects during the 2007-08 financial crisis, taking my A-Levels as tuition fees jumped by 200%, graduating from university as Britain voted to leave the EU and beginning my first job as Trump was elected President of the United States. Perhaps this socioeconomic and geopolitical turbulence throughout such formative years is a factor in millennials being more wary of the status quo in established institutions and organisations. Having paid a higher price for their education perhaps explains more methodical career planning.

Where senior leadership tends to be comprised solely of the older generations, there has been something of a crisis of management, with firms struggling to attract, retain and motivate their younger staff. Here the benefits of bridging the communication gaps are clear. But how is this best achieved in practice? At the 20:40 roundtable, two suggestions came to the fore. The first fix is increased age diversity in the boardroom. The second idea is the implementation of mechanisms for reciprocal mentorship within organisations.

Reciprocal mentorship

Truly two-way mentorship is a way to bridge the generational divide and ensure that key information and ideas are shared both ways. In a twist on the traditional set up where the older mentor shares contacts and professional insight gleaned from decades of experience, in this model, the younger generation’s input has equal value and status. Whether it’s increasing an organisation’s desirability as an employer, explaining the potential of AI, or tapping into the insights of a generation that is increasingly influential, it’s clear that the older generation has much to gain from the younger’s knowledge.

Translating generational language differences is central to bridging that divide. As digital natives, millennials have a completely different way of talking about and using technology. This is an area in which the older generation could gain valuable insight. Having grown up online, millennials are more willing to be digitally available out of hours. Whereas in the past there was a line between work and home life, there’s an increasing expectation that, in a 24/7 world, employees are more easily contactable. Work/life integration – the millennial’s buzz-phrase – is about living the brand while having the freedom to seek self-fulfilment, but also means checking emails in bed and being contactable in case of crisis.

Another area in which millennials could offer hiring managers and other senior leaders valuable insight is in CSR programmes. For younger generations this is much more than a box-ticking exercise – research shows that for 70% of this generation, an organisation’s commitment to sustainability would affect whether they would consider staying there in the long term.

Bridging the gap

Millennials understand that their historical context has shaped their drive for individuality and set them apart from older generations. They also understand that there is much to be learned from the insight built up from years of experience. To get maximum value, strategies for addressing the intergenerational communication gap must offer equal weight to each generation’s insights.


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