The Social Media Generation Gap, Part Two

  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

This article is an excerpt from the book Fundamentals of Technology Project Management (Second Edition) published in September 2012 by MC Press.


This is part two of "The Social Media Generation Gap" article.


The older and younger generations use social media and virtual communication tools in a different way. Their perspectives are different because their experiences are different. One generation grew up in a pre-virtual technology world, and the other has never known life without it.


Before smartphones and laptops were introduced into the workplace, calling a meeting meant getting everyone away from phones and email for a while. That is no longer the case. If your team members lack the etiquette and discipline to listen and participate (whether in person or remotely), this will result in problems. These bad habits are not limited to the younger generation. Unfortunately, they have been adopted by some mid and older generation workers, too. If this is the case on your team, you have a lot of work to do to!


Communication and language skills are other areas where you may notice a generational difference. In the early work lives of the older generation, composition of standardized, formal business letters and office memoranda was a daily requirement. Effective communication was essential because it could take days or weeks for a letter or memo to reach recipients. It was time-consuming and expensive to send multiple messages back and forth. For this reason, it was important to carefully draft and review communications prior to sending. For those writing letters on typewriters, rather than computers or word processors, accuracy was extremely important. Mistakes were not easily corrected. The use of whiteout (liquid paper) was not acceptable on business letters. Typewriters did not come with built-in autocorrect functionality. Good spelling and grammar were necessary skills. It was not unusual for an entire letter to be retyped to fix one typo or grammatical error! Just to clarify, this wasn't the way things were back in the Middle Ages; it was how things were less than twenty years ago! Primitive as it may seem today, it is not ancient history. Attention to detail was required to communicate effectively in a business environment.


Many members of the younger generation have never written a real business letter. Some may never have handwritten a letter to anyone. In fact, these days even email is considered to be a rather old-fashioned way of communicating. Many teens and young adults view it as too slow, inconvenient, and time-consuming. They prefer to use real-time communication methods such as texting, tweeting, or posting updates on social networking websites. These short-form messages are fast and convenient but are generally not conducive to good-quality, precise, and articulate communication.


Electronic communication was used rarely or not at all before the start of many older generation workers' careers. The way they communicated with their friends was different from how younger people communicate with each other today. Electronic communications in many instances were adopted because it became a required part of day-to-day work communication, and knowledge of the tools was required to enhance career prospects. Therefore, the early ventures into the world of electronic communication mostly took place in a professional environment. For this reason, it made sense that the same business rules of professional letter writing or composing company memos were applied to electronic communications. When instant messaging and texting became more widely used, the "formal business letter" generation learned to communicate briefly but in full sentences. This brief but grammatically correct communication can be applied to both personal and business communications.


Members of the younger generation have grown up in a virtual communication environment and tend to be heavy text users. As a result, they often communicate using abbreviated text, and since speed is more important than accuracy, the content often contains multiple typos! This hurried and rather careless style of communication has become acceptable to many people for personal communications. It becomes a serious problem when it starts to spill over into professional communications. It is not an acceptable standard for business communication. Well-written and intelligible emails, letters, texts, instant messages, and business documentation are non-negotiable requirements in a professional environment.


The older generation tends to have more technology "resistors" among their ranks. This doesn't mean that none of your older team members will embrace new technologies, but if you experience resistance, it will more likely be from older-generation team members than younger ones. Having said that, early adopters have been around forever. Your older-generation early adopters have been using electronic communication since before some in the younger generation were born! They were using email in the 1980s, communicating via the (text-based) Internet prior to the launch of the World Wide Web, and using first-generation mobile phones that were attached to enormous batteries—batteries the size of car batteries. They are excited by new technologies and are enthusiastic about change. Many of their peers have taken much longer to embrace new technologies and would readily admit to initially being more nervous and distrustful of those technologies than excited by them. For many in the older generation, the same is true today.


The younger generation is quick to adopt and adapt to new technologies and tools. However, many lack the confidence or business experience to realize their full potential in a professional environment. Remember that the younger generation will one day be the older generation. Some will be early adopters, and some will be heard saying such things as, "We have always done things this way, and it works well, so why should we change it?"


Understanding the mindsets and experiences of workers from different age groups gives insight into their communication preferences and skills. Neither generation is better or worse than the other. Having both on your team can help you develop a well-balanced team whose members can learn from each other.


An excellent way of cross-training the generations is by instituting a two-way mentorship program so the generations can learn from each other. They both have valuable skills. For example, the younger generation can learn from the older generation how to apply what they know about social media in a professional environment, and how to communicate effectively using full sentences, correct spelling, and proper grammar. The older generation can learn how to select which social media tools are best in which situation, and how to use social media effectively by incorporating it into personal and professional communications.


Social media does not need to be a distraction from work for either generation. It can be an integral part of your team's communication plan.