I work in a multi-generational office, with a 70-year-old, 40somethings and early 20somethings.
This makes for lots of lively discussions of differences in habits, professional standards and the like. From that has emerged a list of things that the newer generation of employees can learn from the more senior generation. (You'll note I avoided the world “older.”)
1. Wake up earlier. You may have had a schedule you set in college, but now the work world has its own schedule: Not only do you need to show up for it, but you need to be awake and highly functioning. Attendance is only graded in the negative; performance is what is graded in the positive.
2. Details matter. Grammar, spelling, dress, and communication form and structure all matter. “They know what I mean” shows sloppy work and sloppy thinking. In a world that moves faster and is more deeply connected, little missed details can lead to big mistakes.
3. Experience trumps education. Your degree is very important to you, your parents and your professors. But experience in the field is what matters in the real world. We are not as interested in your classwork as in your internship, your job, and your life, travel and personal experiences. Lead with your experience when contributing a point of view to have more credibility and impact.
4. Never be too good to get the coffee. Regardless of generation, a culture with an esprit de corps of “pitching in” is always a positive. Unload the break-room dishwasher, get the coffee, bring an extra water from the refrigerator for someone else to the meeting. These things are valued when they happen, and noticed when they don’t.
5. Commitments mean more than just “best effort.” Senior generations expect that when someone makes a commitment, he or she means it. If you didn't follow through, an “I did my best” attitude is just not acceptable. Make no mistake: Senior executives will expect you to either meet your commitments or, if you're having difficulties, raise an alarm well in advance of the deadline.
6. Multitask, yes; multi-think, no. You can walk and talk on the phone at the same time. That’s multitasking. You cannot give full attention in a meeting and be texting or emailing at the same time. Be fully present to only one activity at a time if that activity requires thinking.
7. Organization is speed. Being organized creates speed rather than impedes it. Use the company tools for organizing information, the forms for requests/expenses/approvals and the existing scheduling mechanisms–all of them will help you (and everyone else) move faster through complex systems.
8. “Why?” is fine for context, but not for choice. Younger workers often ask “why?” when it comes to policies, processes and approaches. This can be a little irritating to generations who are used to quiet, respectful compliance. “Why?” is a great way to get clarity and context on an assignment–but it doesn't mean that if you don’t like the answer, you get to choose whether to do it. Unless the assignment is illegal, unethical or immoral, the answer to your question should have little impact on whether you perform what has been asked.