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  • Robin Rosenberg

The Disadvantages of a Younger Workforce

It’s hard enough to have hard conversations at work. It’s likely to be even harder for younger, less experienced workers who are entering the workforce. These are generations for whom texting has been a primary mode of communication with friends. These younger workers have less experience in having hard—or any--conversations face to face, even counting video.

A Digital Crutch

Typically, research has shown younger generations would rather text an invitation to someone in the next room than ask in person. Not for convenience, but because it is easier to bear the risk of rejection over text. Of course, trying to read emotions in texts can be like looking at a Rorschach ink blot—we impose our own internal experiences and views of the world on what we read in(to) the text.

Younger workers, with less face-to-face/video conversations (because of texting more) and less life experience, may be under-skilled in having hard conversations. As “soft skills” become increasingly important in the workplace, the generational skills gap may become even wider.

The Work-From-Home Handicap for Younger Employees

Employees relatively new to an office workforce and who have been working from home have been even more disadvantaged: they’ve been hired, onboarded, acculturated (to some extent), and have been collaborating through virtual work interactions. Research indicates this has been less than ideal for learning, engagement, participating, belonging, and learning the culture. Older workers have adapted to remote work better than their younger colleagues.

For the present, it means that younger workers may be less able to have productive “hard” conversations. When confused, they may be less able to ask for clarification; when they need help, they may be less able to ask for it.

A classic example of this challenge is when a younger employee doesn’t let his or her supervisor know that they might miss a deadline. Best practice dictates that when late work is anticipated, the employee should tell the supervisor, ask to bring on extra help, and/or ask to reprioritize other work. A younger employee, embarrassed about being unable to complete the work on time, might instead say nothing about a missed deadline until asked about it.

Long-Term Implications and Solutions

Younger workers need to be able to grow—to take on more responsibility and manage people effectively. At least some of them will be the managers of the future, spending an average of 13% of their time trying to manage conflicts among employees. Without good soft skills, managing such conflicts will take even more time, and potentially lead to higher levels of disrespect and incivility in the team or work unit.

How to remedy this? One step may be prioritizing the return to office of younger workers; one survey found that less experienced employees (i.e., younger employees), compared to more experienced employees, preferred to spend more time in the office and less time working remotely. This suggests that younger employees realize the learning opportunities afforded by being co-located.

Another step can be upskilling younger employees in taking interpersonal risks, but in a way that is respectful. It’s vital these workers are thoughtful of how one’s own words and deeds are perceived by others. Fundamentally, they must be mindful of the difference between intent and impact, and focus on impact.

In order to do that, of course, they’ll need to know how their words and deeds are landing. This is especially hard when working remotely with people they only know through zoom, email, and chat. Therefore, it’s important these younger employees ask questions and offer a genuine, open mind to the answers. By soliciting and absorbing feedback, and developing new habits accordingly, they can promote their own growth.

This brings us back to our most fundamental tool for growth - taking interpersonal risks. Being able to have hard conversations well means digging into oneself to bring forth the most caring, vulnerable, “genuine” self, and showing that self to the other person. Further, listening with an open mind to that feedback and taking it to heart is key. That’s why it’s a risk.

More experienced employees can help this process by giving workers this feedback—respectfully—even if it’s unsolicited. Feedback is the main way we all learn. Note: All of us can benefit from soliciting feedback and engaging with others in a respectful way, not just younger employees!

You can learn more about giving and receiving feedback in our recent white paper, Best Practices for Giving and Receiving Feedback.


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