There was a time when we, as Baby Boomers, were perceived as the generation in charge. We led the way in influencing fashion, language, the arts, politics, and especially in how people should relate to each other. And even today, at 78 million strong, we are still a force to reckon with, but, like all generations before us, the torch is passing.

Many Boomers feel like islands in a stream, longing to communicate with those older or younger than ourselves, but finding it tough to achieve that meeting of the minds. This communication gap can cause severe problems, especially in the workplace. Because of the challenging economic situation, there are so many of us, especially older Boomers, who are unable (or unwilling) to retire and who have to (or want to) keep working. Therefore, being able to relate to those who are younger and may be in charge can have a huge impact on our careers, or even on whether or not we even have a job.

On a personal level, Boomers have parents in their 70s, 80s and 90s as well as adult children and younger grandchildren. Are these years together going to be a warm and loving time or a time of frustration and miscommunication because it is so challenging for so many to communicate across one or more generations? Consider these real life examples:

  •  58-year-old Susan (not her real name) and her husband havent seen or spoken to her oldest daughter, who is 30, in five months. We are just utterly bewildered, says Susan. I didnt see myself as being estranged from a childever.
  •  A 31-year-old CEO of his own Silicon Valley, California-based IT company will only hire other 31-year-olds as his way of dealing with potential intergenerational differences.
  •  How do you communicate with a 95-year-old parent if her dementia prevents her from even remembering that you called or paid her a visit?

Why should you care?

At work, being able to effectively relate and communicate with those older, if its a boss or even an employee or client who is a Traditionalist (born before 1946, someone who is part of what is known as the Greatest Generation, including those who fought in World War II) or to those younger, which these days is the more likely scenario, (the Generation Xers or Generation Ys), will open up more job options to you. This is not only because you may have employees in different age groups, but in many cases you might find they are your bosses or in a position to hire you.

Theres even a cottage industry to deal with cross-generational situations in business. Alan Brody, of iBreakfast, runs a networking breakfast seminar in New York called Job Generation. It offers opportunities for new companies largely started and run by those in their 20s or 30s to find seasoned executives who might help their companies find additional funding sources as well as who might even want to run the company.

At a recent event, I met 36-year-old Paul Orlando, co-founder and CEO of a company called Chatfe, an online service that puts together individuals with similar interests so they can talk on the phone while protecting their contact information.

Mixing older Boomer executives with younger talent is something that Orlando finds appealing. Notes Orlando: I always like hearing people who have a longer life experience so they can compare the next new thing to something they experienced in the past. The challenge is in having older folks work with and channel the enthusiasm of young folks and for the young ones to have the patience to get perspective from the older ones.

We all know that in business, its against the law to discriminate on the basis of age. Unfortunately some companies find a way around that by focusing on what skills older workers might lack as a reason they dont get the job for example, they arent tech-savvy enough or by saying that the Boomer might not fit in with the team rather than blaming it on the age disparity.

Some of the intergenerational issues include older Boomer workers remaining, or returning, to the workplace, who often find themselves working for bosses half their age as well as some Boomer workers who feel little allegiance to their current employer whom they fear will pink-slip them at the drop of a hat if an equally qualified but younger (and less costly) worker comes along.

In the personal arena, getting along with those in varied generations can be a challenge, if you cant communicate with each other. You will miss the opportunity to connect in a positive way and may end up with the kind of painful estrangement that Susan described previously in this column that she is having with her thirty-year-old daughter.

Defining the generations

Understanding the various generations, and what defines each one, can be a useful way of knowing key similarities and differences you may encounter.

Traditionalists The Traditionalists or The Greatest Generation lived through two defining events: the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. They have known sacrifice, postponing dreams and goals, enduring financial hardships, as well as working in a country with more widespread military commitments.

A late retirement to a sunny climate to golf and relax was the goal for most in this age group until the economic downtown of 2008 forced some of the younger Traditionalists back into the workforce. This is the first generation where life expectancy in the 80s, 90s, and beyond is much more common.

Our generation, the Boomers, grew up in the shadow of World War II with the 60s and Womens Lib as two of their defining social events. Moving out from the city into the suburbs and providing our children with a good education were the goals for many of us as parents. Boomers are determined to do things differently than our parents, including our approach to retirement. However, with the current economic crisis even those who planned to retire in our late fifties to early sixties have been finding ourselves pushed back into the workforce to replenish our retirement funds or just to survive economically.

Gen X Generation X is the generation that grew up with technology as a comfortable, acceptable way to communicate and interact. In the United States, the last two Presidents were Boomers. President Barack Obama is the first member of Generation X to become President of the United States. One of the hallmarks of President Obamas presidential campaign was how comfortable he was using technology to communicate with his supporters, including his active participation on Twitter, as well as his own admission of how pivotal his Blackberry was to his ability to communicate with his close circle of friends.

Gen Y Generation Y or the Millennials are the youngest ones in todays workforce, ranging in age from 18 to 25. Those in Generation Y, even more than Generation Xers, grew up with technology as an expected and predictable part of their lives. Cell phones and the Internet are completely natural for this age group. In general, they also expect everything to happen very quickly and are much more likely to be comfortable multitasking than any previous generations.

iGeners Not yet in the workforce, but very much a force in the personal lives of many Boomers, is the generation that Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D. in his book Rewired (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) calls the iGeneration (or iGeners), those born in the 1990s and the new millennium. As Rosen notes: They own cell phones, but use them more for sending text messages than talking. They blog, vlog (using videos to transmit information), Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, video chat, share photos, and latch on to and embrace any new communication tool and give it their own personal spin.

Improve your intergenerational ties

Rule #1: Avoid being too judgmental.

Each generation approaches things differently; add on top of that individual differences and you have an opportunity for diverse opinions. By understanding and appreciating the generational differences, rather than labeling one generation as the right one versus the inferior other generation, it is possible to lessen the distances and to relate in a stronger and more positive way.

Amy Goyer, a music therapist who has worked at nursing homes, has been in the multigenerational field for 25 years is AARPs family expert with multigenerational issues. Amy says, Whether its at work or with a family member, its helpful to consider: whats their life experience and where are they coming from? Traditionalists grew up on radio. Boomers grew up on TV. Generation Xers are growing up on the Internet. What does that mean in terms of shaping that person and how they communicate?

For example, Goyer, whose three older sisters are Boomers (ages 52, 55, and 58), at 49 is closer to being a Generation xer. She set up a family website to facilitate communication among the family members including her parents, who are 86 and 83, and although she is very comfortable using it, her sisters and parents prefer communicating by phone.

Rule #2: Avoid making assumptions.

Angil Tarach-Ritchey is a registered nurse and founder of Visiting Angels in Ann Arbor, Mich. She has worked with seniors for more than 30 years. When she was 17 and working as an aid in a nursing home, she had a patient who did not speak and who needed everything to be done for her. No one ever visited this resident and Angil didnt know anything about her.

As Angil explains: One evening our assignment was to clean our residents' closets and drawers. While I was working in Ann's room, I found a box. In it were no less than 30 letters and cards. I sat on the floor and started to read them. They were love letters from a husband to his wife. This woman, lying there alone, seemingly unloved, had actually shared a fairy tale love, rare and amazing, with an adoring spouse. It was through these letters that I got to know a patient who couldn't tell me anything about herself.

Are there any older or younger people at work or in your personal life that youve made assumptions about?

Rule #3: Ask the right questions and in the right way.

Six years ago, when he was 56, NBC News correspondent Mike Leonard spent a month on the road with his parents, who were then 87 and 82, as well as three of his adult children and one sons wife, who were ages 21, 27, 30 and 34. What Leonard learned about communicating across the generations could fill a book, and it did. The Ride of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons of an American Family (Ballantine, 2007) was also a public television series; there is now a DVD version of the series.

Mike Leonard, right, with his parents Jack and Marge at one of the stops on their cross-country trip.

Leonard found that with both his parents and with his adult children, it was a question of asking the right questions as well as shaping the way he asked those questions. Leonard explained that both his parents had basic themes that they always referred to but whenever his parents got going on those issues, everyone would just tune them out.

Instead, Leonard learned to ask very specific questions. Pretty soon they are talking about things that I guess they didnt know people wanted to know about. It ignited something within them and they were now reliving those moments in details and being entertained as opposed to saying the same old things. That way it was interesting because the same story told everyday would have driven us crazy. Sample questions? Did you have a nickname? What were the teachers like? Who was the biggest jerk in your class?

With his adult children, Leonard found it worked better to have a different communication approach. Says Leonard: Since they are seeking independence, the more specific things I would ask, the more it might look as if I was probing. So with the younger generation, I learned to ask broad questions. Why do you like that? How come you like this music better than that music?

Rule #4: Dont be afraid to ask for help.

Jane Beddall of Dovetail Resolutions, LLC is an attorney who specializes in mediation; elder mediation and facilitated family meetings is one of her focus areas. She helps families who are having challenges communicating with each other as their parents are aging. There are elder mediators like Beddall available for families who need help with their communication. (In the workplace, the Human Resources department may be able to help with intergenerational issues; outside consultants can be brought in to deal with individual workers or to offer company-wide workshops or training.)

To help prevent intergenerational family communication conflicts, Beddall suggests that you by start talking early and keep talking before the problems escalate. Beddall likes to suggest the 40-70 Rule created by Home Instead, a senior care company that is also mentioned in the book by co-founders Paul and Lori Hogan, Stages of Senior Care (McGraw-Hill, 2010). That rule is that by the time either one of the seniors reaches the age of seventy, or the oldest child hits forty, the adult children and the parents have to start the what if conversation about their parents future.

In terms of dealing with intergenerational family conflicts, Beddall recommends trying to deal with the issues in person rather than through e-mail, which lacks any visual cue. If that is impossible because of distance or scheduling issues, a video chat is preferable, followed by talking over the phone.

Rule #5: Take mental and physical disabilities into account

Social worker and adjunct professor Michael Friedman, who until recently worked for the Mental Health Association of New York City, ande who has 40 years of experience wwith age-related issues, recommends adjusting your communication style when there are mental or physical disability issues that have to be considered.

For example, if you have a relative with advancing dementia, there are a number of tricks to improving communication, especially if visual cues are still possible. Instead of focusing on what is said or shared, focus on what Friedman calls the emotional satisfaction of communicating which is of great importance to the person with dementia. He continues, The idea of communication is no longer about content as it is when someone has all their cognitive skills. It is much more about the emotional exchange and the sense of closeness that communicating offers.

Second, those with dementia may have trouble remembering unless they get what is called a cued memory. For example, last December, Friedman and his wife were in Paris and called his mother to say hello. Instead of waiting for her to say, Where are you? Friedman said, Hi Mom. Im calling you from Paris. Were enjoying our trip here. As Friedman explains, his 95-year-old mother was able to recall that he and his wife had planned to travel to Paris because of that cue.

Grab opportunities to communicate whenever and wherever you can

If you are a Boomer and still in the workplace, what can you say or do to narrow the distance between you and the next two generations and diminish the disparities that might make it uncomfortable to work together? You need to find a middle ground, says Kate Lister, co-author of Undress for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home (Wiley, 2009). When was the last time you asked your 30-year-old boss, client, or even your son or daughter, to grab a cup of coffee just to chat? You cant relate if you dont communicate.