9 min read

Bridging the Gap: Navigating Generational Differences in Higher Education

62 year old Ronaldo Juarez, is returning after a multi-decade hiatus to college in pursuit of completing an undergraduate degree. Nervous and unsure of what to expect, Ronaldo contemplates his decision to return to school. He internally reflects on the following questions:  

  • Will this degree be worthy of my time and money?
  • Do I have the skills needed to be academically successful? 
  • Technology has changed so much. Can I keep up? 

Perhaps the greatest change in higher education in the last 50 years is attributed to the birth of the internet. All technological advances occurring over the last five decades are branches sprung from the internet’s existence, including websites, virtual communication, and online degree completion. While higher ed in progressing, allowing for widespread accessibility to opportunity, the technological growth can be overwhelming to those whose first educational experiences involved a different kind of toolbox.  

The workforce is composed of individuals ranging in age, ethnicity, gender identity, and experience. It would be ignorant to assume that employees who have the same expertise, the same background, the same drive would bring about success in any industry. It is diversity which propels progress. Addressing generational differences will most certainly lead to more effective communication and collaboration, better conflict resolution, and increased productivity and creativity. Furthermore, addressing generational differences can help to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion by ensuring that everyone feels values and heard, regardless of their age or background.

UNDERSTANDING GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (Gen Y), and Zoomers (Gen Z) make up the modern workforce. 

Baby Boomers: born between 1946 and 1964

Generation X: born between 1965 and 1980

Millennials (Gen Y): born between 1981 and and 1996

Zoomers (Gen Z): born between 1997 and 2012

In order to build a bridge between the generations, we need to first understand the generalized characteristics of each generation. 

Baby Boomers

Boomers are the children of those who endured the Great Depression. As a result they are known for their optimism, work ethic, individualism, competitive natures, and commitment to tradition. Boomers have had a significant impact on American culture, politics, and society. It is likely that their legacy will continue to impact the country for years to come. 

  1. Optimism: Boomers grew up during a time of relative prosperity, which ultimately created a strong belief in the “American Dream”. 
  1. Work Ethic: Many of the Boomer generation dedicated their lives to careers, as there were many opportunities for social and economic advancement made possible through hard work. 
  1. Individualism: Due to social changes and cultural revolution, boomers maintain a strong emphasis on individualism and personal identity, They are often known to be self reliant and independent. 
  1. Competition: Growing up during a time of rapid change and social upheaval, Boomers are known for their competitive spirit. 
  1. Traditionalism:  While Baby Boomers have embraced change and innovation in many areas of life, they also tend to hold onto traditional values and beliefs. This is manifested in their attitudes toward family, religion, and social norms. 
Generation X

Following the booming optimism of the previous generation, Gen X-ers are known for their independence, pragmatism, adaptability, diversity, and skepticism. 

  1. Independence: Gen X joined the wave of rapid social and economic changes, which ultimately perpetuated the strong emphasis on self-reliance. 
  1. Pragmatism: Efficiency is among the strongest Gen X attributes. They tend to be results-oriented and value hard work, but value work-life balance more than Baby Boomers. 
  1. Adaptability: Gen X were the greeters of the greatest technological changes in history. As a result, they are adaptable and flexible. They tend to be comfortable with new technologies and are able to adjust quickly to changing circumstances. 
  1. Diversity: Gen x also consists of one of the most diverse generations in American history. Collectively, they appreciate different perspectives and are more inclusive in their approach to work and social environments. 
  1. Skepticism: As individualism and personal freedom are highly valued among Gen X, they are often skeptical of authority and institutions. Gen X is less politically inclined than the generation before. 
Millennials

Generation Y, also known as Millennials, are the rising power in the workforce. Many Millennials are post higher education, whether that involves a degree or trade certification. They also have about a decade of experience in the workforce, which often qualifies them to assume managerial roles. Millennials are known for technology advancement, diversity, work-life balance, entrepreneurial movements and social consciousness. 

  1. Technology: Millennials have shaped the way they communicate, work and socialize to adapt to the rapid changes in technology. Social Media was tested and welcomed predominately by Millennials. 
  1. Diversity: Following Gen X, Millennials are one of the most diverse generations in American history. With a wide range of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, they maintain a greater appreciation for inclusion in all areas. 
  1. Work-Life Balance: Prioritizing a healthy work-life balance, Millennials often pursue employment that is flexible and will allow for the pursuit of other interests. 
  1. Entrepreneurial movements: Influenced by their desire for work-life balance, Millennials are entrepreneurial minded. They seek autonomy in their work and tend to be less loyal to traditional employers, Freelance or contract positions are commonplace among Millennials. 
  1. Social Consciousness: Unlike Gen X, Millennials are more politically engaged, with concerns surrounding issues like climate change, social justice, and economic inequality. 
Zoomers 

Lastly, Zoomers (Gen Z) are the emerging generation and the youngest present in the workforce. Similar to Millennials, they are known for technological advancements, diversity, entrepreneurial movements, and social consciousness. They also bring a realism element that differs from previous generations. 

  1. Technology: Zoomers do not know a world without the internet. They are highly skilled with digital devices and social media. 
  1. Diversity: To date, Zoomers are the most diverse generation in the history of the United States. Nearly half of Gen Zers identify as a race or ethnicity other than “white/caucasian”. 
  1. Entrepreneurial Movement: As with Millennials, Zoomers lean into entrepreneurship in search of flexibility and autonomy in their work. 
  1. Social Consciousness: Zoomers tend to choose jobs or companies that align with their values, which surround issues like climate change, social justice, and economic inequality. 
  1. Realism: Gen Z is growing up during much economic uncertaining and political polarization, which bred a more pragmatic and realistic perspective on life. 

The youngest Zoomers are 10-11 years old. There is still much to be studied and developed about this generation.

CHALLENGES OF NAVIGATING DIFFERENCES IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Now that we understand the defining characteristics of each present generation, we can assume some of the complications that may arise in higher education due to differing experiences based on age and societal exposure.  

Communication practices vary greatly between the generations. Baby Boomers may prefer in person communication, or perhaps consider a live phone call to be more “professional”, whereas Millenials and Zoomers are more likely to deem text or email communication as the preferred method. Despite the reasoning behind each generation's desired communication preferences, it is important to find common ground so that the task at hand can be accomplished. Communication in the classroom, for example, may require a blended approach. Ultimately, the student and professor alike have the same goal, to create an environment conducive to learning. 

Some suggested strategies for bridging the gap in generational communication include open communication and active listening, no matter the method. Consider new (and old) practices and decipher which will operate most efficiently for the existing relationship.  

Work Ethnic and learning technique will also differ. While Boomers and Gen Xs may place greater emphasis on long study hours or that being physically present is the optimal learning climate, Millennials and Zoomers will prefer flexibility and balance. Enter, asynchronous learning! The true beauty behind the evolution of education is the realization that there is a choice! If in-person learning is better suited for your learning style, there are thousands of programs that offer in-person learning. If an online education is more your jam, the possibilities are wide-spread and discretionary.  

Like with any relationship, professional or personal, compromise is key. Nothing is to be gained from an interaction saturated with poor communication practices and ignorance. Experience is power. Find it and learn from those who have it.

What about our friend Ronaldo? He found a Millennial-aged study buddy and has a promising academic future ahead as he learns more about new-wave technology. He also openly shares his multi-decade work experience with classmates, in hopes of conceptualizing new business opportunities. At 62 years young, Ronaldo is just getting started.

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