Work + Growth

The Multigenerational Workplace

  • Don’t assume every problem you encounter at work is because of generational differences
  • Something you consider to be common sense or obvious might not be for coworkers of other generations
  • Above all, obey the “golden rule” with everyone at work no matter their age: Treat them respectfully and as you’d like to be treated

There’s a good chance your coworkers range in age from their 20s to their 60s (at least!)

And while we’re taught from the get-go that one of the keys to a healthy workplace is solid communication, that can be a challenge when 40-plus years separate colleagues from one another—even if they went to the same law school.

These days, the legal industry is primarily made up of three generations: Millennials (roughly defined as those born between 1980-1994); Gen X (1965-79); and Baby Boomers (1946-64). It’s worth noting that the next generation, Gen Z, is beginning to make its way through law school and enter the work force too. With decades separating colleagues, it can be tough to foster a workplace where everyone gets along. However, there are some strategies that can help you better understand and engage with your colleagues from other generations, whether they’re significantly older or younger than you.

Don’t Assume Problems Are Generational

We’ve all heard the generalizations about each generation—Millennials need to be coddled; Baby Boomers are resistant to change. And while there may be some truth to some of what’s said, you’re doing yourself and your coworkers a disservice by assuming all problems are because of generational differences. Every person is different and may conform to some generational stereotypes but not others. Or maybe none at all! The underlying issues in a work conflict might be different from what you initially think, so don’t jump to conclusions.

Have you encountered issues with a coworker that you assumed were generational? Have you ever discovered you were wrong in your assumptions?

Modify Your Style

Although more harm than good tends to come from generalizing, it’s true that each generation brings different characteristics to the workplace. And as everyone is shaped by their life experiences, those who have similar backgrounds will likely respond to situations more alike than those who don’t. But just because two partners you’re doing work for are Gen Xers doesn’t mean they’re both going to refuse to collaborate (an old Gen X stereotype). The best tactic is to put effort into understanding your colleagues on an individual level. People have different personalities, sensitivities, and aspirations; modify how you engage with them based on what works, not the year they were born.

There’s No One Definition of Obvious

No one actually talks on the phone anymore, right? And everyone knows the appropriate way to dress for a client meeting? Not so fast. While something might be obvious to you, it might not be to colleagues of other generations. For instance, while it might seem like common sense not to be looking down at your phone when discussing work with a partner, it might not be to a first-year associate who always has his phone in his hand. Or, while using Twitter might be second nature to you, there’s a good chance it isn’t for a 60-year-old senior partner. Keep that in mind before passing judgment.

Support Opportunities to Mix Generations

Time and again, studies show that multigenerational workplaces have competitive advantages. But on the individual level, working with members of other generations can benefit lawyers too. As such, it will benefit you personally and professionally to learn from colleagues who are older or younger than you are. Mentoring is a great way for more senior attorneys to pass on what their experience has taught them to younger members of the staff. It’s also beneficial to seek out colleagues of other generations during networking or off-site events to get to know them on a more personal level.

Obey the Golden Rule

Really, what it all boils down to is this: Obey the often-quoted “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Translated for the workplace, this means your best bet is to simply treat everyone as you want them to treat you, no matter whether they were born in 1954 or 1994. Especially in the legal world, respect is key. Whether you’re dealing with a fresh-out-of-law-school Gen Zer or a soon-to-retire Baby Boomer, treat them with respect, no matter the situation.