I wish that when we talk about polarization we were only talking about how to protect polar bear habitats in the Arctic. But, alas, now the term’s most common meaning refers to the act of dividing, often people and opinions, into completely separate groups. We’ve gone binary in the U.S.

This applies to today’s workplace as well and poses a significant challenge. Possibly for the first time in history (or a very long time) we have four generations clocking in and out of American businesses and nonprofit organizations. Here are the four groups attempting to work it out—at work:

The Silents – born before 1946 – and still working.

Baby Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 – facing retirement now or soon.

Generation X – born between 1965 and 1979 –hitting their working stride.

Millennials – born between 1980 and 2000 – often in their first “real” job or entry-level position.

Note: This is the oldest worker I could find on Unsplash.com!

This is a lot of life experiences, attitudes, differing sets of skills, financial needs, and education to put into one salad bowl. And, don’t forget our media is also extremely polarized and we bring this preference to work as well. It’s good to remember that the categories above are used to describe possible characteristics and often serve as a shortcut to alienate people in the same office by grabbing for a stereotype. “Typical _____” is way too frequently used by each generation, observing work habits, skills, and expectations in the office setting.

I’m fortunate to work from home for the most part and my nonprofit clients are generally older—my age. While we joke about our lack of tech skills that are second nature to the generations below us, it’s one of the key elements that divides us. I think that an informal survey of anyone who didn’t grow up with computers has flashbacks to the “tech guy” who came to your desk and took over, speaking a language that Microsoft still thinks is user friendly. Tech skills and our taste in music, are the two most identified differences. Why, I remember when my father would leave the room if Elvis was on the tube!

Note: There are a zillion pics of Millennials and GenXers on Unsplash.com!

Adapting the TESOL model to the workplace

This leads me to what I think might help. It’s the TESOL model of teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. We may all be speaking English but often we aren’t on the same page. And, sadly we are being trained by the media (they like it this way—more money for them when we’re warring with each other) and politicians to not be on the same page. NOTE: My next blog will highlight the best book I’ve read in a long time—Hate, Inc. by Matt Taibbi.

Large employers could easily implement such a supportive TESOL program—but only if the groups are conducted in person—no online learning allowed. That’s part of the problem surveys and experts tell us: not enough personal contact so that Millennials can see that the Boomer in the marketing department is an experienced, valuable asset. And, the Boomer can appreciate the energy and diversity Millennials bring and might stop addressing a group of women as “you guys.” Personal pronouns—yep, that too.

Here are some suggestions I’m hoping will defrost the workplace for everyone.

  • Older workers can share their experiences—what they did starting out that they wouldn’t repeat, what did work, how to understand and plan for economic ups/downs, how to be independent (a problem for younger workers) yet cooperative, and how to manifest valuable interpersonal skills achieved by growing up without Twitter and FaceBook.
  • Millennials can share their tech skills in a non-tech guy manner, share their wonderful diversity and refreshing attitudes about race, gender, etc., encourage greater work/life balance that Boomers never mastered, and make sharing stories that celebrate differences a part of the workplace. So what if a coworker is old enough to be your mother or even your grandmother. It’s a big tent, this world—let everyone in and pass respect around. Learning from each other always delivers the best outcomes.

Implementing a TESOL model at work might help all of us to stop and think the next time we want to see a stereotype rather than the person.