I think the most important skill you can acquire before entering the modern-day workforce is the ability to work effectively with a diverse array of people. Team projects are more common than ever. Whether you’re at an internship or full-time job, you’re expected to know how to deal with a variety of people — specifically, how to collaborate and work towards common goals with people who are of a different generation.
Going from the classroom into the workplace can be a culture shock. From elementary school through college, you were accustomed to doing group projects with people your own age. You could bond over shared cultural references, interests, school experiences, and other things that come with being in the same stage of life. Entering your first job, you may be put to work with people 10, 20, 30, even 40 years older than you. These colleagues may be above you in the corporate hierarchy or they may be at the very same level. All of a sudden the opportunity to bond over the party you all went to Friday night disappears. How do you, the 20 year-old intern, connect with the 42 year-old mother of four?
You probably have more in common than you think. Start by talking about things work-related, and then explore other topics of conversation. TV shows, sports, travels, and hobbies are all fair game. If you take an active interest in other people and you give them basic respect, the age gap isn’t half as big of a deal as some people make it seem. Personally speaking, I’ve learned that I have more in common with some 40-somethings than I do with a lot of people my own age.
Read up on generational differences
Though not every person fits the stereotype of their generation, it helps to have a basic understanding of how different age groups approach work. Each generation’s viewpoints are shaped by events that happened while they were growing up, and reinforced by their own experiences in the workplace. If you know the history of how baby boomers served their time and slowly progressed up the career ladder for the last 30 years, you’ll better understand their objections when you request management responsibilities and flexible work hours on your first day. You’ll develop a greater appreciation for their contributions too.
Respect their experience
This is especially true if you’re joining a team of people who have been doing something for a long time. My biggest mistake upon starting my current job was jumping in and trying to make changes immediately. Were my ideas brilliant? Yes. But I didn’t pay attention to the fact that individuals had been working on certain projects for 15+ years before I came along. It was a mistake not to draw upon their collective experience and wisdom. After you understand the scope and history of a project, then you can offer constructive suggestions — and your ideas will likely be taken more seriously.
Teach them something
You can obviously learn a lot from more experienced workers, but they can learn something from you too. Your expertise in the area of technology, for instance, may be a great starting point. If you teach an older, less tech-savvy colleague about a website that will make his/her job easier, you may find yourself with a new friend (who happens to be in a management position). Mutually beneficial relationships like this spring up across generations all the time.
Develop a professional identity
Simply put, if you act like a student, you’ll be treated like one. If you’d like to be considered an equal, you’ll need to dress professionally, write coherent e-mails, and learn what is and is not appropriate to share in your particular workplace. When you first start a job, err on the side of being overly conservative and formal — you can always loosen up later on, once you’ve established yourself professionally. It’s difficult to do the reverse.
As baby boomers prolong retirement and millenials join the entry-level ranks, the multigenerational workforce is a very real thing. If you put effort into building relationships with your older colleagues you can create bonds that will allow you to be more productive in your job.
Dan Klamm is the Outreach & Marketing Coordinator for Syracuse University Career Services. In his position, he is responsible for student engagement with Career Services. This includes managing the marketing campaigns for events and programs, leading social media initiatives, and fostering relationships with people across campus to build awareness of the office. Connect with him on Twitter @DanKlamm and LinkedIn.