Communicating across the Generations: Implications for Higher Education Leadership

Communicating across the Generations: Implications for Higher Education Leadership

Carolyn N. Stevenson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0437-6.ch006
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Today's workplace is composed of four generational groups of employees, each with varying degrees of technological expertise, career expectations, and professional experience. As such, higher education administrators need to identify differences among generations of workers and develop a strategic plan for managing and motivating across the generations. This case study addresses the following question: “How do higher education administrators lead and motivate multi-generational employees and online students?” An understanding of the common characteristics of each generational group is the first step for developing a strategy for motivating all employees and students in higher education. Communication, mentoring programs, training, respect, and opportunities for career advancement are components valued by all. It is important for higher education administrators to understand the values, work ethic, and communication style of the different generations. The implications for higher education administrators lie in establishing an organizational culture that promotes satisfaction for all individuals in the higher education setting.
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As more individuals are delaying retirement and working several years past the retirement age, it is important for higher education administrators to be knowledgeable about the different generations working in various capacities in the higher education setting. College administrators, such as department chairs or other administrators responsible for training and hiring faculty members, also need to be aware of the differences across the generations. This is especially true for online instructors who do not meet face-to-face with students.

According to Ferri-Reed, J. (2013), “A mixture of the mature generation, baby boomers, generation X, and generation Y (or millennials) can be found working side by side. For the most part, the members of varying generations are capable of working well with one another, but there are generational differences that can create friction and, in some cases, cause open conflict,” (p.12). As such, the topic of engaging and managing the multi-generational workforce calls for further research. Educational leaders at all levels are challenged with leading various generations. This has had a major impact on higher education administration in terms of retention, recruitment, motivation, and productivity. Faculty members also need to be aware of the differences between multi-generational students, especially in the online classroom, and establish communication models where all students are motivated to perform at the highest level.

At the present time, there are four generational groupings of employees in the workplace and in the higher education classroom. According to Friesner (2015) the four multi-generational groups in the workplace are:

  • The Traditional Generation: Born pre-1945;

  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964;

  • Generation X: Born 1965-1980;

  • Generation Y or Millennials.

In the very near future, there will be five generational groupings of employees in the workforce and in the online classroom at the same time. As individuals are working well into their late 60’s or early 70’s, higher education administrators need to adapt their leadership styles to effectively manage, motivate, and retain employees from various generations. Additionally, the flexibility of online learning promotes many adults to return to college. Students across generations have different communication styles and study habits. Online instructors need to be mindful of these generational differences and adapt a teaching style that promotes success for all students in the online classroom.

The diversity of generational workers and students impacts motivation and retention of employees. Additionally, higher education administrators, such as department chairs, need to train instructors on communicating with multi-generational students. This is especially imperative in the online classroom where nonverbal cues are absent. As such, college administrators and instructors need to be knowledgeable of the differences across generations and leverage the strengths of each group. “When communicating across generations most likely it isn’t just one. Most of us are trying to reach a mix of individuals, but how does each generation like to be reached and how do we combine them,” (Aalgaard, 2015, p.1).

While higher education administrators and instructors may be aware of the various generations in their institutions and classrooms, implications for motivating and managing across the generations may not have been considered. “Research indicates that people communicate based on their generational backgrounds. Each generation has distinct attitudes, behaviors, expectations, habits and motivational buttons. Learning how to communicate with the different generations can eliminate many major confrontations and misunderstandings in the workplace and the world of business,”(Hammill, 2015).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Millennials: Individuals born between 1965 and 1980. Work ethic and value for individuals in this group include questioning what is next and multitasking. This group also has a high interest in creating work/life balance.

Generation Xer’s: Individuals born between 1965 and 1980. Work ethic and value for individuals in this group include wanting structure and direction. This group was the first focus on work/life balance.

Baby Boomers: Individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Work ethic and values for this group include being a workaholic and a high level of personal fulfillment.

Virtual Teams: Groups of individuals working in a professional or academic setting set out to achieve comma goals or completion of a project. Communicating is not face-to-face but occurs via electronic format.

Multi-Generational Work Groups: The representative of four generations in the workplace. This includes Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xer’s, and Millennials.

Collaborative Learning: This term is used to refer to students working on a computer-based learning program that requires them to collaborate by, for example, taking different roles, operating different controls, etc.

Holistic: This term is used to describe an integrated knowledge structure or an approach to learning that recognizes that knowledge needs to be integrated.

Mentoring Programs: Formal or informal programs in which more experienced individuals assist individual with limited experience. Mentor programs can occur in the workplace as well as the classroom.

Traditionalists: Individuals born pre-1945. Work ethic and values for individuals in this group include sacrifice and completion of tasks before personal enjoyment.

Work/Life Balance: Creating a balance between achievement and enjoyment. Work can also refer to tasks that need to be completed in the household in addition to a formal place of employment.

Experiential Knowledge/Learning: This term describes knowledge gained through experience/learning through experience. Contrasts, and moreover conflicts, with academic knowledge and learning through instruction.

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