When Generations Collide
Article written by HJ Cummins, Minneapolis Star Tribune
The first wave of Generation X recently turned 45, making Gen Y-ers the new youngsters. Traditionalists are wrapping up their careers, and Boomers soon could follow them into retirement – or not. With four generations on the job, employers find that their biggest diversity issue these days is age.
Sheila Gallagher tries to be a sensitive manager. So even though young Frank Brodie, a new Carleton College graduate, had just joined her restaurant sales and support staff at General Mills in August, Gallagher invited him to make a presentation at his very first staff meeting in September.
That’s huge. A Baby Boomer broke company protocol in order to make a Gen Y-er feel included. Gallagher thought to make the gesture because she was fresh from a training session on generational diversity – the biggest workplace diversity issue today, many say.
U.S. employers now count four generations on their payrolls, mostly because people are living and working longer. The leading edge of Generation X just hit 45 this year, and they have issues with Generation Y. Boomers have to start taking Gen Xers seriously enough to talk succession plans. And they all need to figure out how to work with their elders – the Traditionalists – as the U.S. workforce continues to age.
Their differences are more than simply age. They have to do with lifestyles and work styles shaped by forces as disparate as dust bowls and iPods. And unless companies sort it all out, they will be in trouble, said David Stillman at BridgeWorks, a Twin Cities consultant on generational diversity. “What ten years ago was seen as a `fluff’ topic has become a clear, bottom-line issue, a retention issue,” Stillman said. “People who say `I don’t feel understood here’ or `I don’t feel respected here’ go to work for someone else.”
More employers are getting interested in the generations and how they work together – or not. Workplace specialists say it can get complicated. The oldest group, the Traditionalists or Veterans, was born before World War II. Its members tend to respect authority and tradition. And while they prize loyalty, they still may balk at younger bosses’ new ideas – after living through everything from Total Quality Management to Six Sigma.
Boomers are a driven bunch, partly because their sheer numbers mean they always have had to compete for jobs. Trained that asking for help is a sign of weakness, they’re burning out with today’s workloads. And they’re not very impressed with the less-ambitious Gen X-ers.
Generation X is emphatic about balancing work and life, partly because they don’t want to follow Boomers into burnout. Their goal is building careers, which means they welcome new and different assignments at work.“X-ers love lateral moves,” Stillman said. “Boomers see that as being `sidelined.’-” Also, unlike Boomers, X-ers don’t trust companies. “A year-end bonus doesn’t work for X-ers,” said Karen Stinson, CEO of ProGroup, another diversity consulting firm in Minneapolis. “They’ll be thinking, `I may not be here that long. Your company may not be here that long. You all might be in jail by then.’-”
Generation Y – also called Nexters or Millennials – finds Gen X-ers too distant, and X-ers think Y-ers need too much handholding. Parents doted on this generation, so they feel loved and supported and optimistic about the world. X-ers see them as Pollyannas, but their world views connect well with Traditionalists, Stinson said. Also, this heavily scheduled generation worked less than any other while growing up, so they missed basics such as punctuality and dress codes. “I’ve seen huge conflicts over whether they can wear flip-flops to work,” said Stillman of BridgeWorks. “I’m telling their bosses, `Don’t get mad at them. Don’t dismiss them as bad workers. Just back up and teach them.’-”
And one more thing: Understand the difference between generalities and stereotypes. Stillman hears: Oldsters are technophobes. Baby Boomers are workaholics. Gen X-ers are slackers, disloyal. Millennials are too young to know anything. “The point is to get to know and understand the person,” he said.