Cultural Challenge during Co-op: Generational Gaps in the Workplace

As a first generation immigrant, cultural challenges are an embedded normality of my life. It is a substantial part of my identity as I continuously try to find a balance between my upbringing, education, and societal exposure. I realize that cultural challenges will continue to render important life experiences, especially in the context of career development. Through this reflective essay I would like to share my significant cultural challenge of generational differences that I have felt in the workplace during my co-op term.

As part of my undergraduate studies requirements, I have been working as a co-op student at a consulting firm for the past four months. I was thrilled to work at a nationally recognized firm that is a leader in my prospective industry. Naturally, I anticipated that working in the private sector, however brief, would yield accelerated learning due to the fast-paced nature and great breadth of projects.

I quickly learned that the consulting practice works at a very irregular pace—very fast in short bursts and slow for the remaining time. In a corporate paradigm, the generational gap became a cultural challenge as it materialized a clash between expectations and contrasting work styles. My immediate superiors, Gen X-ers, are very independent, whereas I, a Millennial, look for direction and feedback. These distinct traits emerged when I became involved in projects typically at the end of pipe with little context or rationale when given instructions. As such, I was navigating without direction and structure on the fly.

My response to this significant cultural challenge spanned over the course of my co-op term. Simply put, it was a matter of adapting to the work environment. I became accustomed to the once unclear instructions, fragmented communication, and time sensitive tasks assigned on short notice. With practice, I found a pattern in my tasks and strived to find the most efficient and effective approach. It was a steep learning curve that required thinking from unfamiliar, multiple perspectives and a regular basis of problem-solving. I was learning to find the right interpretation, which is also a key recurring theme in my prospective profession.

Notwithstanding my cultural challenge, this work term has broadened my understanding of the field from an important perspective in the industry. While there was limited exposure to projects, I was exposed to the ebbs and flows of consulting, and the dynamics of a large team and corporation. I believe that the experience from this firm will be helpful for me when I encounter a similar circumstance in the future. Generational difference will continue to be present in the workplace when I fully join the work force after obtaining my degree, and its impacts will be prevalent in some offices more so than others.

My significant cultural challenge of generational difference is beyond a personal experience, and is part of a larger discussion that affects society at large. Generational differences in the workplace significantly impact early career development and workplace dynamics, which are not defined by a spatial nor temporal scale. Millennials joining the workforce is a highly contentious issue in research as well as social media. As a gross generalization, we are critiqued for our behavior and inability to adapt to the work environment. I believe that integrating our voice into the discussion will help reach an understanding of generational differences, and optimize the workflow in multi-generational workplaces.

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