Communicating across the generations

  • Published
  • By Maj. Terry Thomas
  • 403rd Wing Equal Opportunity

When I enlisted in to the Air Force a number of decades ago, things were different, not necessarily better or worse than they are today, just different. 

My generation and the one before were not exposed to computers until we were out of high school and college. The generations that followed grew up with computers, online bank accounts, streaming, etc. These samples may feel or sound small; however, when we look at each decade, we see how different we are. Yet we are tied to the same Air Force Core Values. Those differences make up our strength as the keeper of the blue skies. 

Today, the Air Force Reserve currently employs Airmen from across five generations. One important difference is that each generation has its own unique characteristics and ways of communicating with one another, and with the older and younger generations.

So if you ever think to yourself, why didn’t the Airmen do as you asked, stop and consider whether your instructions were clear or communicated properly. Often times each generation’s experiences, can affect and sometimes hinder our communication with others.

Realizing that everyone communicates differently, how each generation thinks, and why they act in a particular way is important in the Air Force Reserve today and being able to adapt to the different communication styles will create a more cohesive work environment.

Baby Boomers or Boomers

This is my generation, those of us who were born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers have experienced many changes during their careers, which has forced them to be flexible in their thinking. They expect that same flexibility of those they interact with and more often than not, lead.

The typical behavior of a Boomer is to wait to be invited to give their opinions – unless they’re extremely concerned about a situation. Then, they tend to jump in with both feet and be outspoken.

Boomers prefer face-to-face conversations. They also prefer to be shown how to do things or to show others how something is done versus just explaining how to do it. This style of interaction is counter to other generations, who grew up with computers and cellphone and texting.

Generation X

Generation X Airmen are somewhat more adept with technology than Baby Boomers, so email works best for them as their go-to form of communication.

Imagine the struggle that occurs between a Boomer who likes face-to-face communication and wants the hands-on or show-and-tell type of communication, and the Generation X style of communication. Can you begin to see why the other person may end up not doing what was asked of them?

This generation tends to lean toward feeling a sense of valuation and that their voice is heard. So provide them with regular feedback. When communicating with them, they prefer that emails and in-person conversations be short and to the point and details and background information may come across as a waste of their time.

What separates Generate X (1965-1976) apart from Boomers, they are more likely to express an opinion without being asked, but they are slightly more reticent at doing so than millennials. They prefer to be asked in person for assistance and input.

Generation Y

On the other hand, this generation also known as millennials, were born with a cellphone glued to their ear and texting as their first language. Computers were in their face early into their schooling, having been born (1976-1995) a year following the first Apple computer release in 1976 known as Apple 1.

Many may be surprised to learn that this generation feels like they are always having to prove themselves to older generations. While they appreciate being challenged and to be treated like an equal, they also feel that they deserve recognition for the work they do. 

The best approach for communicating with generation Y and Z, is to talk with these Airmen daily, bring them along through training to learn how to operate in a practice. They also crave one-on-one assessment and feedback. That is the challenger in them striving to achieve and show case what they can do.

To get the maximum out of this generation, be prepared to explain your thinking. This is not natural for Boomers who represent most of leadership. They’ll ask questions, which for a Boomer may sometimes come off as trying to challenge your leadership, but this is not the case. They are not known for being patient, so don’t be surprised when they are looking for ways to move up or onto the next step quickly. As leadership, managing expectations and being able to express those expectations early is critical.

Generation Y’s go-to form of communication is email and texting, but don’t get too formal as this may scare them away from interacting with you or others.

If fun is lacking in the workplace, they will leave, so they are your go-to for bringing engagement back into the squadron.

Generation Z

This generation refers to those born after 1996, they are the technology Airmen, but they actually crave “some” face-to-face communication. They were born surrounded by all things technology, but have found the need for social interaction. This generation recognizes the value in showcasing their life, not just achievements, to others, unlike Generation Y.

Also, because they grew up with Generation X parents, who often worked full-time and switched careers a few times, they understand the importance of staying relevant by continuing to learn and proving themselves. Mentoring to this generation by all of the other generations show benefits for the Air Force of tomorrow.

While they may opt to texting or email, this generation is adaptable as they have grown up seeing and experiencing rapid changes their entire life and Air Force career more-so than the other generations. They understand the value of face-to-face conversations, but need to be mentored on how to conduct these conversations due to their brief time within the Air Force Reserve.

So when you find yourself asking why that Airmen didn’t do something as you expected it to be done, then challenge yourself to see what may have led to that outcome and what you can do to improve the communication. Because, despite our differences, we are all Reserve Citizen Airmen working together in order to make the 403rd Wing the ‘Wing of Choice’ for those joining our Air Force Reserve team.