Navigating Intergenerational Workplaces

By/
Natoya Brown
Resolve Staff at a staff event in September 2023.

“They see beyond just your age here.”
-Rasheed Ajamu 

Suppose we allowed popular social media influencers like ChampagneCruz (Cruz Corral) and IAmDreBrown (Deandre Brown) to ultimately tell the story of what an intergenerational workplace looks like. In that case, we’d all believe there is an ongoing battle between generations on who can make the workplace more insufferable. While these TikToks make for an entertaining take on meetings (that could’ve been an email) and pizza parties over pay raises, most of us know that our contributions to the workplace are way more nuanced than just the year we were born. 

While many of these generational stereotypes can hold, the reality of the Resolve office is that an intergenerational workspace can offer its share of successes and challenges. Working as a Program Associate for the Community Engagement team for about eleven months, I’ve had the opportunity to see the importance of having an intergenerational staff that reflects the diverse members of the communities whose stories they amplify.

I invited Resolve staff to share their insights on why age is more than a number in workplace culture. Participating staff self-identified as members of the following generations:

Gen Z  (Born 1997-2012/ ages 11-26)
Millennial (Born 1981-1996/ ages 27-42)
Gen X (Born 1965-1980 /ages 43-58)

Their responses reflect common themes that often shape conversations about workplace culture, including:

  • Longevity and Growth in the Workplace
  • Overall Wellbeing
  • Cultural Shifts and Technology

In addition, I will also share my thoughts on how an intergenerational workforce contributes to the goals of Resolve to support not just the community we serve but also the staff who help to make this work happen each day.

Longevity and Growth In the Workplace
When it comes to loyalty and longevity, members of Gen Z tend to be depicted as disengaged opportunists who prioritize well-being and self-care over climbing the career ladder. Former Engagement Reporting intern Mariyum Rizwan expresses that these views can pose a challenge to intergenerational workspaces. She says, “Perceptions of work ethic and productivity can differ across generations. Older employees may view younger colleagues as less committed, while younger employees may see older workers as less productive or adaptable.” Editorial Associate Luisa Suarez explains why she believes work ethic has been affected: "My generation tends to be less loyal to workplaces. We are not afraid to switch to a job we feel offers better pay or benefits. On the other hand, my father's generation worked at the same company for decades, which I attribute to the promise of a pension.” 

As a self-identified millennial, I often feel we’re on the cusp of two different expectations. While many of our parents and even grandparents saw their tenures with one employer rewarded with regular promotions and generous pensions, we are also currently witnessing a trend of rapid inflation facing many millennials who can't afford to save for retirement due to the burden of student loan debt that many carry. A recent study revealed that fewer than half of millennials even factor Social Security into their retirement plans compared to 9 out of 10 Baby Boomers. In much of my work experience over the past decade, loyalty doesn’t seem to be rewarded by most employers like it once was. From a financial perspective, it makes sense to continually seek higher-paying positions to secure some financial safety for the future.

Fellow millennial Daymeia Wimberley shared her thoughts on how loyalty and longevity can also be affected by industry. Hired last year as an Operations Associate, the former educator shares that loyalty played a huge part in past positions. “With teaching, there’s this expectation of loyalty,” she says. "I loved my coworkers, and I loved the kids too, but when facing extreme burnout, I still felt that I had to stay because that’s what was expected.”

Communications Director Imahni Moise recalls how she struggled with taking time off to parent full-time during her growing career. Although she did some consulting during this time, she worried potential employers would question the gap on her resume. But in her experience, employers have been more understanding of career trajectories that differ from the predictable entry-level to manager pipeline since the pandemic. She says, “I feel like people are becoming more understanding of the fact that we have lives and we’re not just workers.”

My fellow millennial colleagues all share that they experienced a sense of guilt or self-consciousness about what they felt would be perceived as job-hopping by their Gen X and Boomer relatives or supervisors, many who had expressed that mental well-being and liking who they work with weren’t necessarily priorities for their generation. Gen X staff at Resolve were candid about fighting the impulse to judge employees who had only spent a few months or years with an employer. Ultimately, millennials felt an allegiance to Gen Z in the idea that longevity and loyalty in the workplace were heavily impacted by opportunities for growth, community, and being treated well overall. 

Overall Wellbeing
Recognizing the social and emotional toll a commitment to “grind culture” has taken on their older counterparts, Gen Z seems to agree that wellness is just as (if not more than) essential as wealth. 

What stood out when I applied for the Community Engagement position was that Resolve already seemed well-adapted to a flexible work schedule instead of making rash decisions in response to a critical world event. Unlimited time off and bi-yearly breaks are offered to staff in an environment where rest is encouraged, and staff feel supported enough to mark their calendars with blocks of time for “Parent Duty” to signal their unavailability. On my second day at Resolve, my manager shared with me that the work culture truly embodied the idea that, “Work should revolve around your life. Not the other way around.”

Luisa shares that although she has never worked a whole week in an office, she does have friends who still report to their jobs five days a week. She attributes the change to the activism that Gen Z has come to be known for. She says, “There also was a rise in labor movements and unionization, which I believe is a testament to our generation (and other generations) pushing for better pay and work environments.” 

Mariyum shares an optimistic take on intergenerational workplaces: "Intergenerational teams bring together individuals with different life experiences, values, and viewpoints. The diversity of thought can lead to more creative problem-solving, and innovative ideas should be celebrated!” 

One of the great things about intergenerational workspaces is the opportunity for rich conversations with different perspectives. Conversations at Resolve are often filled with context from relationships with trusted newsrooms and community partners that can only be offered by those who have contributed years to building and maintaining relationships. There are also ample opportunities to get a pulse on the happenings of diverse neighborhoods throughout the city. Staff often lean on one another for insight about community events, restaurants, and other activities specific to how they experience the city, and no two experiences are the same. Former Documenters intern Asher Lentz, a member of Gen Z,  feels that staff being at “different stages in life” also contributes to differences in perspective. 

Several staff members agree that Resolve is a “learning environment” with plenty of opportunities for “Dad jokes” and Zoom rooms guided by a late 90’s R&B playlist for shared focus time. However, humor was noted by some as a challenge for intergenerational workspaces. With so much diversity, there’s bound to be movie lines that are lost on other generations or jokes that just fail to land without context. Staff members shared their appreciation for one another in taking care, considering how they approach serious subjects, and making sure to “check one another in love” when there are mismatches in humor.

The exchange of information in all directions, not just instruction from leadership, can also be witnessed daily at Resolve. Countless memes allude to interns and entry-level staff showing their supervisors how to convert a Word file to PDF or reminding them to unmute themselves during a Zoom meeting. Still, it’s clear the Resolve staff and interns alike feel like learning and teaching are not just dependent on years of work experience. As Editor of hyperlocal newsroom Germantown Info Hub, Rasheed Ajamu shares that their millennial experience at Resolve Philly has been one where career growth doesn’t necessarily occur on a traditional timeline, “They see beyond just your age here.” They continue: “To be able to see people so young be able to hold leadership positions is really great, too.”

In many work environments, there is a predictable path to leadership positions often paved by those who are the oldest and assumed by default to have the most experience. I’ve witnessed office environments where ego proved to be a massive barrier to productivity from those who felt their work shouldn’t be managed by someone younger. At Resolve, growth opportunities are created based on need and a staff member’s desire and ability for the role. For those reasons, leadership roles are often filled by folks of various generations with different skill sets, life experiences, and interests.

Technology and Cultural Shifts
Digital tools such as Slack and Zoom support the daily work of Resolve, with almost all meetings being offered virtually and a few staff members who have shifted their work to take place almost entirely remotely. The Gen Z staff that shared responses discussed their daily, primarily online, work tasks and digital tools necessary to fulfill their work duties. Executive Director Jean Friedman-Rudovsky now calls herself “a true believer” in project management apps like Asana, although she admits it took her some time to get there. She says, “Email was just becoming a thing when I was finishing high school. Cell phones were not a thing until late into college.” 

Jean shares that timing played a big part in her acceptance of technology, explaining, “If you don’t have it in those formative years of your life, it’s just really hard and really different.”

For many Gen Xers at Resolve, digital tools are helpful but not always the go-to to get the work done. Jean shares that for her, some “magic” is lost in certain activities where not all participants can meet in person. Fortunately, the hybrid model and digital tools used at Resolve allow staff to prioritize time in the office to accomplish the synergy that, for many, can only happen face to face. They can then use that momentum to continue to bring their best ideas to fruition at a pace and in an environment that works best for them.

Once again, as a millennial, I find myself in between welcoming digital tools as a means to an easier workflow and needing to detach from the constant Asana notifications to engage with communities in person. You’ll also find me scrolling Facebook for news, overthinking an email salutation, and hoping an iced coffee will solve all my problems. I guess some stereotypes do hold true.

Many Gen Zers shared that the shift to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic greatly transformed their idea of work/life balance and flexibility. It appears that a workplace that invests in the emotional and mental well-being of its staff may result in employees who are more engaged and better able to focus their time and energy on thoughtful work rather than just making an appearance at a desk. 

When asked about stereotypes he has heard about his generation, Gen Xer and Director of Collaborations Eugene Sonn referred to movies such as Slackers and Reality Bites, which instantly bring to mind, for some, images of unaffected and cynical characters played by Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. Eugene shares, “I don’t know how many of those stereotypes are true. They may have been true in the moment but didn’t hold true over time.” 

He shares that as a Gen Xer, his feelings about the workplace currently center on work/life balance and what the latter half of his career might hold, “How has our presence changed in terms of what it means to balance work/family? What do we think about planning for retirement? Do we want to retire at all? Will we be able to?”

The concerns facing Gen Xers, as described by Eugene, are likely ones that we will all encounter at some point. Maybe what generation you’re born into doesn’t have as much to do with your perspective on a workplace as much as what you’re currently dealing with in life, whether it's finding your professional place in the world for the first time, or the fifth, parenting or planning for retirement. According to Gene, an intergenerational workplace enhances the culture at Resolve. He says, “I really enjoy the fact that I get to work with people of different ages. It makes me value staying here.”