How to effectively communicate to Millennials and Baby Boomers simultaneously

November 30, 2016
Clare Brown

In a recent Librarian interview project conducted by Vable, 75% of respondents listed effective communication skills as an essential requirement to do their job. Breaking ‘the books stereotype’, verbal and written communication is a key ingredient to successfully delivering training, answering reference questions, managing current awareness, and many more of the diverse roles a Librarian’s job entails.  

phone communication

In fact, SLA list communication twice in their recommended enabling competences for Information Professionals. Firstly in reference to effective oral and written communication, and secondly in “the ability to foster [...] communication among diverse individuals” (1). In large professional services organisations, which are made up of a multitude of ages and generations, the latter can present some challenges.

Matures, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials

Matures, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. No, this isn’t some form of strange reality TV but rather the four key generational groups in the typical workplace today. Typically we would see Baby Boomers and Matures making up the decision makers, whilst attorneys are likely on the intersection between Millennials and Generation X, and new joiners would typically be compiled of Millennials. As an Information Professional it is imperative that you are able to relate to the 20-something just as much as the 50-something. Each group brings with it a unique learning style, communication preference and experience.


Source: Meta Metrix (2)

These days the majority of Librarians and Information Professionals will likely have some form of Library Science or Information Management degree but soft skills, such as effective communication, cannot be learnt from a classroom or sat behind a desk. Instead, these skills continuously develop and evolve as you try out and experiment with different working techniques throughout your career.

When trialling different approaches to multi-generational communication, as with communicating to any audience, the best approach is to appeal to the interests of the person or people in hand. Talk their language. You wouldn’t attempt a conversation in Japanese with someone who only speaks Spanish, the same goes for communicating to different generations. Different ‘languages’ will be more appealing to different groups.

The Benefits of Audience Segmentation

Younger audiences such as Millennials will typically be drawn to more casual means of communication. Rather than the in-person route, Millennials will likely be at ease conversing via instant messenger as opposed to a traditional formal meeting. Having grown up with technology an integral part of their lives, Millennial workers are typically more than comfortable with working virtually and will be highly receptible to short videos as an ‘on demand’ form of training. That being said, as a generation Millennials have a substantial team focus, with sport and other recreational activities having been a key part of their childhoods, and so they will also work well in group settings (3).

On the flip side, more mature workers such as Generation X and Baby Boomers will commonly prefer to communicate verbally and in person, and will be accustomed to more formal hierarchical working styles. Subsequently, it is possible that they would prefer one on one training over a group setting due to their independent nature. However, that independent mind may bring with it some challenges as Generation Xers often prefer to get on with work themselves as opposed to reaching out for help.

The Importance of Remembering Individuality

It is important to note that whilst audience segmentation is incredibly valuable in helping you see trends and themes across different generations, this should never be a one size fits all approach. Communication preferences and adaptability will very much vary by industry, what training the individual has experienced before, as well as the person’s specific interests - there will always be a need for adaptability in your communication strategy. Avoid blanket stereotypes and instead use these concepts to guide you whilst remembering that everyone is an individual and will have their own preference.

Instead, take care not to separate age groups entirely. Intergenerational mentoring can actually be a fantastic way for team members to share knowledge and learn from others. More mature workers will bring with them decades of experience, the lessons of which can be shared with those their junior. Whilst the Millennials of the company will be able to train others in skills that may be more specific to a younger generation. Such a practice also helps in highlighting some of the challenges faced when communicating across generations; Phyllis Korkki gives a fascinating account of her experience with a younger mentor writing for the New York Times:

“[My mentor] suggested a possible reason for my awkwardness: Baby boomers tend to have to a hierarchical view of the workplace — an “org chart” mind-set that imagines power filtering down from the top. Millennials, by contrast, may see the office as more of a horizontal network, she said.”

Phyllis Korkki (4)

Keeping the Library Door Open

By building a friendly rapport with your coworkers and becoming known for an open accessible approach will go a long way in opening up communication channels to all generations. Many colleagues will struggle to ask the library for help, either because they aren’t used to admitting that they do not know something, or because they are a part of the ‘Google generation’ and believe that they can easily find the answer themselves. Particularly in the professions where your core commodity - your knowledge - defines you, it’s tricky to admit that you are lacking some. In these cases having a ‘the door is alway open’ style of relationship will help your cause in promoting the library service to those who might be more dubious.
Remember, this is a continuous process. Each generation is continuously evolving and gaining new and different experiences which will, in turn, impact upon how they work and communicate. In a few years we will start to see Generation Z, also known by some as Generation We, joining the workforce. They will bring with them new experience, new knowledge and new expertise to which we must all continuously adapt. Although not an easy task, the long run benefits will be more than worth it.

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1. Special Libraries Association (2016) Competencies for Information Professionals
2. Meta Metrix (2016) The Next Generation - What Matters to Gen We
3. American Management Association, Leading the Four Generations at Work
4. Phyllis Korkki (2016) What Could I Possibly Learn From a Mentor Half My Age? Plenty, The New York Times