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How to defy 6 generational stereotypes in the workplace
With a little effort, you can catch up to those text-crazy millennials
Baby boomers should make an effort to convey liveliness by sitting up straight and making eye contact.
Baby boomers should make an effort to convey liveliness by sitting up straight and making eye contact. Thinkstock

Millennials don't take well to even the slightest bit of criticism at work. And we all know that Gen X'ers don't play well with team members. As for boomers, they're totally out of touch and couldn't care less about learning new things on the job. After all, they're just looking to retire soon.

We've all heard these age-based workplace stereotypes at some point, but what can you do to avoid being unfairly pigeonholed yourself? We spoke to three career pros for advice on how to dodge generational typecasting while on the job hunt.

"Gen X'ers don't play well with team members"

The story with this stereotype: Nobody wants to hire someone who's hard to get along with, cynical, divisive, overly ambitious, or selfish — yet Gen X'ers have a reputation for possessing many of these qualities. "If you're rolling your eyes at meetings, spreading rumors about colleagues, or bcc-ing somebody's boss on an email, then you're not going to be respected or earn anyone's trust in the office," says Roy L. Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide.

What you can do: "When you're addressing a manager at work or a potential boss during a job interview, drop in the word 'we' instead of 'I' when you're talking about collaborations," says Donna Schilder, a leadership, career, and business coach. "Use it on your résumé too." This is a simple way to illustrate that you are a team player who knows how to share accomplishments. "Another strategy is to volunteer to join a team project or create a new one," she adds. Maybe you've noticed that a particular office process could be done more efficiently — so why not ask your boss if you can work with three other colleagues to address the problem? It'll show that you're a proactive leader who's willing to work with others, as well as go above and beyond.

"Millennials can't take constructive criticism"

The story with this stereotype: If you pout, cross your arms defiantly, or argue the second somebody critiques you on the job, guess what? It shows — and it's not a good look. You'll come off as insecure and defensive. "It's natural to get angry or sad when you feel threatened or like you failed," says Diana Aten Conwell, a career counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and life coach. "But learning how to roll with the punches is an important job skill." If you're unwilling to acknowledge mistakes or areas where you can improve, you're unlikely to grow as an employee.

What you can do: Whenever you're being criticized, take a deep breath, nod your head, and be conscious of your facial expressions and body language. Wait a few seconds, minutes, even hours if possible before you respond. "Instead of lashing out and saying something that you'll regret, let yourself process the information," says Schilder. "It's O.K. to ask for time to think, or excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. Remember, the people who become C.E.O.s seek out feedback, receive it gracefully — and then act on it."

"Baby boomers are out of touch with technology"

The story with this stereotype: No one wants to be that person in the meeting who asks, "Isn't a tweet the same thing as a text message?" But the truth is, youngins have a head start on boomers when it comes to technology, seeing as they grew up using the internet and smartphones. "You may only have five working years left, but your company may not have five years left for you if you don't demonstrate a commitment to remaining on the cutting-edge," says Cohen. But the good news is that, with a little effort, you can catch up to those text-crazy millennials.

What you can do: Try to teach yourself how to use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn if you're not already familiar with these tools. If you google the name of the tool with the word "tutorial," you'll find online videos, says Schilder, who offers an e-course on how to use LinkedIn. You can also take online courses in social media at coursera.org or sign up for continuing-ed classes at a local school, suggests Cohen.

Conwell has another good tip: "Also consider asking a millennial in your office to teach you tricks. In return, offer to teach that co-worker something that you're an expert at — like sales strategies and marketing tips."

"Gen X'ers are way too into work-life balance"

The story with this stereotype: Many employees in their thirties and forties are bogged down with familial responsibilities. If you're a working mom or dad, coworkers might snicker behind your back about your scooting out early to pick up your kids at day care or not working as hard anymore. In other words, they may think that you're less dependable if they perceive that work is no longer a top priority. "Perceive" is the key word, though. And there are easy ways to change the way people see you.

What you can do: "If you have to leave in the afternoon to take your son to the dentist, the only person who needs to know is your boss. Don't announce it — just slip out quietly," says Schilder.

You should also judiciously promote yourself to superiors. "Don't assume that your accomplishments are always noticed — your bosses are busy," says Cohen. "Regularly and gently let your manager know about something you're proud of via email or during a conversation." For example, say, "I got wonderful feedback from a client today, so I thought I'd share it with you." An added tip from Schilder: When applying for a job, don't ask about hours or vacation time until you get an offer.

"Boomers can't be bothered to learn new skills"

The story with this stereotype: If a manager senses that you're itching to cash in your 401(k) to lie on a Florida beach for the rest of your life, you're less likely to get a promotion. "You can't mentally check out — you need to do your best up to the last second," says Schilder.

You can also fool people into thinking that you're younger than you are. "I worked with a woman who was in her late sixties, and just entering the job market," says Conwell. "She knew that she was at a disadvantage, so in interviews she said her nickname was 'The Energizer Bunny,' because she worked circles around people half her age. She had no trouble finding work."

What you can do: First of all, when you're in the office, don't talk about your age, any health problems, the fact that you're excited about retiring or how exhausted you are. "A lot of times, people have no idea how old you are until you say something," says Schilder. "Also, don't ask Human Resources about your company's retirement package because that isn't always confidential and your boss could find out."

Another smart move? Think hard about upgrading your wardrobe and hairstyle, so you don't look dated. And just like the Energizer Bunny, says Cohen, make an effort to convey that you're lively by sitting up straight on the edge of your chair, and always make eye contact.

"Millennials are entitled and lazy"

The story with this stereotype: Few things annoy managers more than 20-somethings who think that they deserve promotions after three measly weeks, complain constantly in the shared kitchen about low-level tasks, or come in late. "It takes time to gain more meaningful responsibilities, and move up the ranks at a company," says Schilder. Bosses want to hire employees who are willing to roll up their sleeves — and pay their dues — without grumbling.

What you can do: Focus on the fundamentals: Be on time, smile, say yes to everything, and don't complain. If you're bored, find something else that needs to be done — and move quickly between tasks.

"And don't even think about asking for a promotion until you've been at a company for at least a year," says Schilder. "If you bring up the topic, ask about the level directly above yours — not five levels up." And don't ask, "When will I get a promotion?" Rather, opt for a more subtle, "What can I do to try to earn a promotion?" Why? Because phrasing and tone matter.


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