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The Generation Gap in the Workplace

Many people to put off retirement and stay in the workforce much long than originally planned. Combined with the approximately 100,000 new workers entering the workforce every month, a new workplace dynamic has emerged. For the first time in recorded history, there are workers spanning four different generations in the firms all across the country.

Many managers are finding themselves with direct reports who span a 50 year age gap. In addition, older workers are now finding themselves with managers who may be 20 or 30 or even 40 years younger than they are.

This workplace dynamic, which was unheard of two decades ago, is now “business as usual” in many American firms. A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that 43% of workers older than 35 have a younger boss. Another recent Pitney Bowes survey found that 20% of mid-level corporate employees report to a younger boss.

These new working relationships have garnered much negative attention, with many reports claiming that the intergenerational clashes between “stodgy” older workers and “arrogant” younger bosses will ruin many firms in the decade to come.

Now, while these reports make for good headlines, they are simply not true. For the most part, age differences in the workforce don’t create the problems that stereotypes would have us believe. Overall, workers want many of the same things. They:

  • Want respect
  • Want to trust their cohorts and their leaders
  • Are concerned with office politics
  • Want to be recognized for the work they do
  • Are uncomfortable with change
  • Want to learn and want a coach to help them achieve their goals

Workers also have many of the same values; they just have different ways of expressing those values. For example, research conducted by Jennifer Deal, Ph.D., a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, found that 72% of workers (across generations) put family at the top of their values list. However, the way they express that value is different. An older worker might view working long hours and earning overtime pay as the best way to express that value, while a younger employee might feel that leaving the office early to spend more time with his/her children is a better reflection of that priority.

Additionally, research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work (at Boston College) shows that many of the perceptions people have about younger and older workers just are not accurate and that reinforcing negative stereotypes will only drive a larger wedge between generations. Older employees can be technically savvy; younger employees can be good communicators.

But the stereotypes still persist because they are, well, stereotypes – widely held, over-simplified beliefs. They provide an easy, simple answer to people looking for a solution to a very complicated, nuanced situation.

Generational differences are just that – complicated and nuanced. People are not alike simply because they were born within a certain range of years. For example, there are Baby Boomers who did not attend Woodstock, simply because the event extended past their bedtime. Yes, they were born between 1945 and 1965 and are part of the Baby Boom generation, but their life experiences, values and world view is vastly different on an individual scale.

It is imperative to build strong, multi-generational workforces that can help organizations meet the challenges of a competitive global economy. To do this, we need to stop focusing on stereotypes. There are plenty of Baby Boomers who are immersed in social networking, and there are plenty of Millennials who need help finding their way around the web. Generations are not going to shape the workplace; a balanced mixture of working styles and solid working relationships will.

Therefore, managers need to focus on identifying workers’ strengths and making them all work together. Focusing on the individual “wants” of the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials will not lead to success. Success will hinge on traits that build solid working relationships – credibility, dependability, and trustworthiness – not on what age group likes Facebook better.