Bridging Generational Gaps: The 5 Laws of Generational Understanding

millennials Jun 13, 2017

Generational gaps are REAL. Often times people of different generations don't quite understand each other. I have often been asked, "Randall, can you help me understand millennials? What tips can you give me to understand how millennials think?" Well, those are some loaded questions, and to be honest there's not a real answer for this. Most people seem a bit disappointed when I break the news to them that there's no magic formula or secret code for breaking into the mind of the millennial generation. I can offer helpful advice on understanding culture, mindset and communication, but we won't get anywhere without first understanding the 5 Laws of Generational Understanding.

Through much of my research and studies on generations over the past few years, I have developed these 5 laws as a foundation for my Bridge leadership program which helps organizations bridge generational gaps. I have seen an extensive need for this message to be spread and these laws adopted because of the lack of understanding between generations which can lead to more serious organizational problems. I believe that organizations should adopt generational understanding as an opportunity to create a better workplace culture, improve cross-generational communication, and improve team performance. In turn, it is quite possible that this can ultimately have a positive effect on the bottom line of a company.

The biggest cross-generational problem that I see is when people are unwilling to accept some of the underlying principles that I have outlined below. These underlying principles are not a magic formula, but rather provide a basic set of rules that must first be accepted before moving forward. True leaders in organizations must continue to develop the skills to know and understand their team. This is an important topic that has recently become a focus for many organizations because they realize how crucial it is for teams to understand and relate to each other, yet take for granted the topic of generational understanding.

Leaders in all levels of an organization must continue studying topics such as mindset, culture, and communication in order to stay ahead of generational changes and be prepared as they take place.  

The 5 Laws of Generational Understanding

Law #1: Generational gaps are typically interaction gaps

Much of what is programmed into our minds come from a young age. We have many childhood and teen experiences with those who are in our same age group, so it's no wonder why most of us identify a bit more with our own generation. You might notice that those who share the same generation have similar maturity levels, world-views and interests.

If you think back to the time when you were in elementary school, you might remember that adults just weren't that interesting. I hardly ever remember carrying on deep and meaningful conversations with adults, and when I did have a conversation it was usually small talk. Kids my age seemed to be more like me, so it's reasonable to assume that most kids would interact much more with their own age group. For kids, it's more comfortable and less awkward to interact with our age-group because their interests and their minds are more similar than they are to adults. Not to mention, as kids we are forced to interact with our own grade levels when attending school since we were only exposed to our own grade (minus the teacher).

As we grow older we continue to primarily identify with our own generation but also start finally realizing the differences in other generations. I have never met a child who is concerned about generational disconnects that exist. This is because you don't realize the differences as a child, it's only in adulthood when you start realizing and internalizing these things.

For most people, the first 18 years of our lives have been programmed to interact and understand people our own age. When we grow older and are thrust into the real world, we are now forced to interact and do business with many different types of people whom we have previously lacked interaction with. At first, there is a blaring difference between the way a young professional may think, dress, and interact versus a seasoned professional. In time (and with more interaction), the younger professional typically starts adopting professional culture and narrows the gap between the newbie and seasoned professional.

This is also true between generations... the more we interact, the more we narrow the gap. I have found that the leaders who have the most problems with generational understanding are the one's with the least interactions, and the one's that have the most interactions between generations have the most productive teams.  


Law #2: Each generation will reap what the former generation has sown.

Nobody wants to admit it... But it's true, each generation with reap what the former generation has sown. The perfect example of this law is how millennials are known as the participation trophy generation. My good friend Wes Gay says it best when he says, "I have never met a group of 7 years olds who come together, collect all of their allowance money, hitch a ride to the trophy shop, buy their own trophies, and have a party at the local pizza shop for a losing season."

Millennials are ridiculed for being the "Participation Trophy Generation", yet we were simply the recipients of this trophy and self-esteem phenomenon. Are millennials really the correct generation to blame for this? I think not... And before you start blasting me for taking a one-sided opinion towards millennials, let me say that there are also many other examples of this same thing that have happened to other generations. For example, Baby Boomers are known to be workaholics who show up early and stay late everyday. Because Gen X saw the ill effects of this kind of work ethic (ex. high divorce rates, burnout), it has led to a rise in the Gen X mindset to have flexibility and work-life balance.

The truth is that there are consequences to decisions, both individually and collectively. Whether the individual makes a decision on how to parent their children, or society makes a decision on what is acceptable... there are consequences.

So rather than looking at the short term effects of generational impact, maybe we can start looking long term. It doesn't take a genius to realize that by rewarding kids for losing soccer and tee-ball seasons, they will reap the effects of an entitled mindset, one that has plagued the millennial generation.

(I would love to hear some comments from you all about what you think are cause and effects from generation to generation... There are plenty!)  


Law #3: There is as much to learn as there is to teach.

“If I could only get this person to understand where I am coming from...”

“If they would just listen to me, then they will get it."

"If only my kids/coworkers would just take my advice."

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you do this, or maybe you know someone who does this. It sounds like someone who is all knowledgeable in all areas of life is only interested in relaying information rather than listening to receive it.

Remember this... There is as much to learn as there is to teach.

I have caught myself time and time again teaching at someone rather than simply listening to them.

Think of parent's who don't understand their millennial compared to the parent's that do. Most often times the parent's that have a deeper understanding for their millennial son's and daughter's typically have had more interaction with them and have passed through law #1. Interaction can do wonders, especially when the relationship is mutually interactive. One speaks and the other listens with intent.

Is it too much to assume that many parent's overpower true interaction with speaking and forget to listen? Whether your a parent or not, only speaking and seldom listening can have adverse effects on any relationship. All people want to be heard, not just millennials.

I have no PhD in Psychology, nor do I pretend to have any scientific research to back any of these claims up, but I do understand the foundations of communication. Furthermore, I understand the importance of cross-generational communication and the how listening often times plays a more vital role than teaching.

Listen. Now that's a concept! It's not some fancy generational understanding concept that has been discovered through scientific research (Sorry to disappoint you). Sometimes the most helpful things to implement are extremely simple, yet not that easy to remember. I wonder what would change if everyone started listening to others in order to understand them.  


Law #4: All generations have the same values, they just express them differently.

One of the best examples of this is in the movie “Why Him”. Here's the synopsis: "During the holidays, loving but overprotective Ned (Bryan Cranston) travels to California to visit his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) at Stanford University. While there, he meets his biggest nightmare: her well-meaning but socially awkward boyfriend, Laird (James Franco). Even though Laird is a multimillionaire, Ned disapproves of his freewheeling attitude and unfiltered language. His panic level escalates even further when he learns that Laird plans to ask for Stephanie's hand in marriage. The father, Ned, is extremely upset with his daughter for how different her boyfriend is from their family and vows that he will never accept such a person as a son-in-law. He could not possibly understand why his daughter would choose such a man, so he asks her, "Why him???" She then responses by telling Ned that her boyfriend reminds her of him.

Ned and Laird, two totally different people with two totally different lifestyles, communication styles, cultures, etc... But the daughter felt that her boyfriend's values were similar to her dads. On the surface, it seemed as though they were two completely different people, but they did indeed hold to many of the same values, they just expressed them differently.

I always get a kick out of people who have not taken the time to interact or learn about someone else on a deeper level, but then make quick judgements about them. I have had conversations with many high level leaders in different organizations, many times listening to their problems with their millennial workforce. Most recently, I had a leader tell me that millennials have completely different values. So I asked, "How so?"

They went on to explain how their millennials don't believe in hard work because they leave as soon as the clock hits 5PM and give him eye-rolling attitude when asked to stay late.

So we did a little research and surveying. We found that each generation had different definitions of hard work. Baby Boomers saw hard work as showing up early and staying late. Generation X saw hard work as being super productive, getting the project that they were assigned to them done and getting a jumpstart on the next project so that they can enjoy their home life without any work distractions. Millennials saw hard work as using work time to collaborate with their teams, make a contribution each day, and then catching up on calls/emails/work in the evenings and weekends.

All three of these scenarios cue a very distinct mindset between the different generations, and this is only one example. The truth is that people have different definitions of many things. The values are the same, they just express them differently. It might be frustrating to land all three groups on the same page, so it is important to recognize these differences and ensure that each team member understands these differences.


Law #5: Each generation imagines itself more intelligent than the one before it, and wiser than the generation after it.

This one is interesting. When I present this one I find that most people just nod their head up and down.

Growing up, most of us always thought we were smarter than our parents, we thought we knew it all. Many teenagers believe this because they start to realize that their parents are out of touch with the pop culture that many teens embrace. In college, they start to embrace their own manhood or womanhood, even to the point where they may start questioning what they were told as a child. As a young professional entering the workforce, they are exposed to many new ideas, concepts, business models, workplace cultures, and many more things that don't always necessarily translate into the way their parents would do things. By this point, it is clear... most of would say to themselves, "I am more intelligent than my parents."

Then a few years pass and they are now parents with growing kids... kids that they don't really understand. Maybe if I just impart some of my wisdom into them, they'll come to their senses and take my advice. "You know son, when I was your age..." (Refer back to Law #3 about listening vs teaching) Now, it's just plain obvious now... "I am wiser than my kids."

I won't argue the fact that much of this is actually true. In fact, I believe that parent's are (or at least they should be) wiser than their children, but this isn't always the case is it? And kid's aren't always more intelligent than their parents, it would be absurd to think that.

It's an interesting conversation to have because nobody really realizes it until they are told that everyone thinks of themselves first before they think of others. Life is interesting to study, especially if you study your own. You will start to realize that you compare everything possible to yourself. In doing this, many of us are quick to point out the flaws in others and forget about our own.     Generational understanding doesn't happen overnight. Rather, it happens slowly as teams begin to interact with a clear mindset for achieving the end goal of understanding.

If the end goal isn't to understand, there will be no understanding.


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