The Clash of Generations in the Work Place Discussions of workplace diversity predominantly encompass the topics of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Generational differences, although not always included in these debates, are also part of the diversity that characterizes the contemporary labor force. For the first time in American history, we have four different generations working side-by-side in the work place. This study of the beliefs and values of the major generational groups and their attitudes to each other provides a thorough basis for understanding issues that are likely to arise in the workplace.
It highlights the very different attitudes to work, life and the importance of life style between the generations, providing tools for dealing effectively with each generation and with the differences between them. Concerned primarily in how these differences impact on today’s working life, but the sketches of each generation also provide insights into what may happen to work arrangements as different value systems become dominant. Growing up in a different era tends to make people see the world in a different way. Each generation has distinct priorities, attitudes, behaviors, expectations, habits and motivational keys.
Don’t waste your time!
Order your assignment!
At the workplace, the classical rules about older workers being the bosses and younger workers doing what were asked, are no longer the same. Diverse value systems, conflicting work ethics and different styles to getting things done, can create tension and affect work dynamics in several ways. In today’s work place, four generations leave their respective and largely differing home environments to go to work where the environment comprises a single organizational culture. Their collective birth dates span over sixty-five years.
During their formative years, their experience with “leading edge technology” ranged from the introduction of black and white television to using hand-held computers nearly every hour of every day. Yet, while they possess myriad differences, they are each required to interact appropriately with each other and adhere to the organization’s inherent values. How can leaders of these varied individuals recognize, acknowledge, understand, and maximize the benefits of the diversity that multiple generations bring to the workplace? How do we understand their true differences and the way those differences affect workplace behavior? How can eaders guide work teams to understanding the potential for high performance that diversity among generations brings to the workplace? The study of The Clash of Generations in the work place is intended to address these issues. Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Ys The United States population currently numbers over three hundred million; 66 percent are aged fifteen to 65, the inclusive ages of the current workforce. To gain some control or understanding of this vast range in generations, many have neatly labeled twenty-year age spans into four generational descriptors: the Veterans, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y .
These generational descriptors suggest that it is the year that one is born, and the early life experiences of a generation, that form one’s values, preferences and work habits, leading each generation to demonstrate predictable behavior in today’s workplace. There is some useful perspective in understanding the historical upbringings of a generation. For example, today’s senior Americans who were born prior to World War II and who Participated either on the battlefield or in the factories at home during the war, are seen as civic-minded and altruistic due to their military service or upbringing during the Great Depression.
They volunteer for any cause and have gladly gone the extra mile for the good of their country. Further, each generational cohort has unique descriptors that help “explain” why they act the way they do in today’s workforce. Equally pithy descriptions of the Baby Boomers are commonplace. Due to overcrowded public schools in the late 1950’s and 60’s, and a television in every home that showed graphically the world as it was, from Cambodian death camps to landing the lunar landing, young people were energized to question all that had mattered as they entered college and young adulthood in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s .
An economy struggling throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, double digit inflation, fierce competition for jobs, and exorbitant housing costs forced the Baby Boomer generation to question what success really meant, and ultimately were labeled the first “me first” generation. Generation X saw the national debt soar, the solvency of social security system at risk, the depletion of the ozone layer, and some successful treatment protocols for HIV and AIDS. Their families experienced record-breaking divorce rates and many were raised in single-parent homes.
They have watched more television than any other generation and, as such, have witnessed life’s worst: famine in Ethiopian refugee camps, O. J. on the run, and the amassing of the United States military for what turned out to be a three-day war in Kuwait. During their early years and young adulthood, Xers viewed the botched Iranian hostage rescue attempt, watched in horror when the space shuttle, Challenger, exploded, and Oprah’s popularity soar. While growing up, many were latchkey children or spent considerable time in childcare outside the home.
They learned to entertain themselves and became independent at an early age. They are more ethnically diverse than previous U. S. generation, and because so many American systems crumbled, they dislike taking orders and are comfortable challenging authority. Generation Y is not simply an extension of Generation X, yet with only a few years in the workplace, it is too early to capture their collective persona. They seem to be deeply influenced by their friends, but also by their parents and teachers.
In a survey conducted in the late 90’s, they listed as very important having a well-paying job, respect from others, good relationships with their parents, home ownership, and the freedom to do what they want. Their parents, when able, often chose to reshape their work lives to spend more time parenting them, and academic standards rose considerably for this generation. They have had extensive experience in the team through sports and during school projects. They represent 70 to 80 million Americans, almost as large as large as the Baby Boomers generation.
While such a generational cohort model (Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Ys) is easy to understand, and does offer some help at understanding “them,” it is not accurate or useful if used to truly understand why different age groups act so differently in similar workplace situations. Table 1 depicts the four-generation comparison and it identifies the political issues facing each generation and the generations’ overall response to these issues. When experiences of each cohort are compared against each other, however, one generation may not have had more significant or life transforming experiences than any other.
Events, for example, are substantial, but more intense and shorter in more recent history. Compare the duration of World War II with the three-day war to liberate Kuwait, for the veterans and the Xers, respectively. The intensity of more recent events, and the availability of immediate Information via satellite, has caused the generations to shift to a less unifying and more diverse mindset. The social backdrop under which each of the four generations were raised was considerably different; some generations faced poverty and war, while others experienced terrorism and technology explosion.
Yet, all have faced social upheaval, economic uncertainty, challenges to the social mores of their time, and inexplicable acts of violence. The four generation model asserts that the entire personality of a generation is formed by the seminal events that take place early in life, and while many have asserted that not all generational members will share all generational traits, they argue that they tend to share common viewpoints, Communication styles, and work habits .
While the four-generation model is certainly easy to use, it is fundamentally flawed. It misses the critical component of life stage: the age bracket and career position that a current generation occupies informs their behavior far more than the year they were born. Howe and Strauss write extensively about this perspective, “Whatever the era [the individual is] living in, Americans habitually assume that the future will be a straight-line extension of the recent past. But that never occurs, either with societies or with generations” .
It simply isn’t that easy or accurate to put several million people into one set of descriptors tracking past behaviors to predict future behaviors. This approach, while commonplace, ignores the influences that life’s ongoing experiences or familial changes and age have on individual behavior. Understanding a generation within their current age bracket helps explain their behavior, a point the four-generation model fails to make. A number of published studies comparing generations reinforces this premise.
Research with Generation Xers, and Ys conducted in the mid-1970’s with young Baby Boomers professionals of that time. When asked which employment aspects were more important to them, responses were surprisingly similar. Xers, Ys, and Boomers all selected: respect for me as a person, good pay, opportunity for self-development, and freedom on the job as critical components of a job. Another study, conducted in 1971, compared life value preferences of college graduates at 17 national universities throughout the country. The 1971 esearch repeated a study conducted in 1950 which asked college graduates to indicate their preference for living in each of thirteen Alternatives (Examples of the thirteen preferences included: interest in cultivating independence, showing sympathetic concern for others, acting and enjoying life through group participation, etc. ) The researchers found that there was little difference between preferences in living for the 22 to 25 year old responders of 1950 (Veterans) and the 22 to 25 year olds questioned in 1970 (Boomers).
What this helps us understand is that young graduates are highly motivated, well educated, and socially sophisticated. As young adults, they have a strong desire to find their place in life and in work. They seek training and development to facilitate this journey. They find lower-management jobs routine and without challenge. Many college graduates have reported that initial work tasks are less challenging than the work they performed in college and they are eager to do “real work” and make decisions based on their best thinking .
The same consistency in career stage can be seen in mid-life, as well. Boomers have often been described as workaholics who made little time for family or other activities outside work. However, some have found that this is not necessarily true. While Boomers have reached the top of many organizations in the last ten years, they are there in a large part because of their age and experience, not solely because of their tenacity, or any early societal experiences.
As Boomers were performing in organizations early in their careers, a number of researchers expressed concern for whether they had the mettle to perform at the top of organizations some day. Others compared management characteristics of young business graduates in the 1950’s with young graduates in the 1970’s. They found that both groups were equally equipped mentally to take on management roles, but the 1970’s group (Boomers) expressed little interest in leading organizations or directing the work of others.
At the time it was reported, Boomers in their late 20s and early 30s were less interested than their 1950’s counterparts in pursuing the corporate ladder to reach higher positions in organizations, make critical decisions, or pursue positions of authority . Finally, stories of the Veteran generation such as those retold in the Brokaw’s Greatest generation depict countless stories of World War II veterans, both men and women, their valiant efforts during the war, and their journeys to rebuild their lives after the war.
While common thinking portrays this generation as civic minded, hardworking and family oriented, they had their shortcomings, as well. They were indeed hardworking, civic minded, conservative, and a generation of joiners. Yet for all their civic-mindedness, the men were brutally discriminatory during their mid-careers. For example, Browkaw celebrated a number of women who served either in government roles, as clerks, advisors or nurses, or in factories manufacturing military hardware, only to be left out of meaningful work when the “real” veterans returned home.
These bright, well educated women were relegated to traditional roles of teachers and nurses, and paid significantly less for their work. Browkaw also described the heroism of black veterans who were forced to serve in all-black military units. Upon returning home, many did experience economic prosperity, yet until the 1970’s, they continued to live, work, and socialize in segregated communities. While the Veteran generation has aged beautifully, due primarily to lifting the mandatory retirement and advances in healthcare, they too were eager and aggressive young graduates who were impatient with current management.
Said one campus recruiter describing the challenges of filling engineering jobs in a burgeoning 1950’s economy, “They want to be able to become a vice president in three years and don’t want to be told that they haven’t been there long enough” . So Where Does That Leave Us? The fact that each generation possesses similar characteristics in young adulthood, as well as, midlife is a critical key to understanding our workplace today. Strauss and Howe  set a path to understand this.
They believe that rather than one set of informing events that occurs to a cohort in their early years, continual events, as well as age, and the underpinnings that go with it – family, children, mortgages, increased job responsibility – cause the generation’s characteristics to evolve and adapt. They assert that generations move through their lives evolving and adapting from life’s experience, so that one set of early experiences does not necessarily inform an entire generation or a set of behaviors for their entire life. Consider the traditional career development mindset depicted in Table 2.
It suggests that as professionals, the focus on their careers naturally evolves. For example, in the early years of one’s career, rising adulthood, the focus is on getting started: applying the knowledge acquired in college, eagerly understanding the nuances of the organization one has joined, understanding the work behaviors that are valued and feeling a strong need to contribute. Thus, it makes sense that similar comments and perspectives are depicted about post-World War II veterans in their early careers and college graduate Xers forty years later.
Furthermore, we see similar kinds of driver-driver behaviors from midlife professionals as they are given increasing leadership responsibilities and are fully expected to deliver the defined performance results to their organizations. For those in their mid-life, where financial opportunities are at their peak, career often prevails. But unlike the veteran executives with their non-employed homemaker wives, Xers and Ys are facing the challenges of managing two careers plus family, with possible responsibilities for their aging parents, as well.
What emerges from this vast collection of generations’ literature is that Boomer bosses seem to have forgotten our own independence in young adulthood. Claiming that our younger workers are not willing to work hard shows our own age more than their youth. Young adults’ independence and need to stubbornly hold onto their recently cemented beliefs while applying their academic learning are a reflection of their age, not on the fact that they are named Generation Y.
Furthermore, it is becoming clear that as the Xers move into middle age, they are struggling with the same balance issues and life choices we boomers faced fifteen years earlier. The changing expectations on parenthood, the shift in the economy causing older Americans to revise their retirement plans, and the increasing pressure to balance work and life requires us to think more creatively and independently about each individual in our workforce. Table 3 offers a model for supporting the forty or more year age span that fills our American workforce today.
How Leaders Can Respond Working effectively with myriad generations in the workplace is critical. Executives and front line supervisors alike must embrace the reality of our evolving generations in order to successfully manage the vast array of diversity. How one does this is the challenge for twenty-first century leaders?. How does one leverage each individual’s needs while making sure the business is thriving? Blessing and White , a career development and employee engagement consulting firm, offer an interesting model.
They assert that leaders must think about the needs of the business and the needs of each individual simultaneously. The model asserts that when both business and individuals are truly aligned, the organization receives the maximum contribution and the individual receives the maximum satisfaction from the organization. This model is more than a good idea – it is an imperative. It offers a method for understanding the impact of not tapping into each individual’s needs. On the other hand, if the individual is not thriving, the organization is not receiving the individual’s maximum contribution.
This occurs with new hires, who are yet to be productive, or when someone simply stays with an organization, but has given up. Further, if the organization’s needs are being fully met while forcing the individual into increasingly higher expectations of delivering flawless results, without considering the individual’s needs, the individual experiences burnout or simply departs the organization. This dilemma is made even more complex when one considers this is not an issue just for a single individual in the organization, but to multiple individuals each with differing needs that a manager must be able to address simultaneously.
Countless books have been written on effective teams, a few simple strategies can be kept in mind to harness the mind power and work preferences of the current workforce, regardless of age or social upbringing.  Make time to understand individual needs. Begin by understanding the stressors and satisfiers of each staff member. One individual, for example, may wish to begin their workday early, to be home when their children arrive from school, while another needs an extended lunch period to exercise. Learn to appreciate differing preferences.
Create written agreements between yourself and your employee outlining specific parameters for flexible working arrangements. Identify specific times when all team members must be available, and exercise discipline to maintain the defined timeframes when all team members must be present. Help individuals understand where they fit into the team and its expected outcomes. Stop using generational labels to describe individual behaviors. Many have argued that “they” act in certain ways and demand certain aspects from their workplace.
This is a dangerous practice. While a generation does possess certain commonalities, individuals possess many more intra-group differences. A fifty-five year old boomer who is suddenly faced with raising her husband’s grandchildren as her own, for example, has entirely different workplace needs than does her counterpart who is considering upcoming retirement and empty nest adjustments. Take time to understand each individual and the skills and knowledge they bring to the team. Exercise leadership flexibility. In the hectic work environment of the U. S. conomy, it is easy to fall into a standard set of management practices, yet the reality of diversity requires a significantly different course of action. Exercise management sophistication; supervisory style must be situation ally-based, being thoughtful with regard to matching individuals to assignments. One’s style must balance concerns for tasks with concerns for people, orienting on personal rather than positional power. While a single management style is certainly easier, it does not address the needs to the individuals within a team, and will not be successful in the years to come.
Orient on the outcomes of the team. “Organizational leaders can foster team performance best by building a strong performance ethic rather than by establishing a team-promoting environment alone,”  The team itself, as well as the work of the teams, needs attention. Building skills and knowledge, helping others understand what each team member does and actively reflecting on team accomplishments and challenges ahead is time well spent. While checking work progress, check in on team interactions, as well. Summary and Conclusions
Today’s workplace is diverse and the work is complex. With the troubling performance of he U. S. stock market in the early years of the 21st and incredibly rising healthcare costs, our most aged workers most likely will be in the workplace longer. The bust of the dot. coms has allowed younger workers to question the value and intrigue of start-up organizations. What this means is that not only racial but also generational diversity will be prevalent in American workplaces. As leaders of our organization, we must take time to understand the nuances of our workforce.
These nuances affect the way the work gets done, but more importantly, they affect the quality of the work environment. Creating high quality work environments is the leadership challenge for the next ten years. Achieving work environment quality is frustrating and challenging due to misunderstandings and differing perspectives of what is right. It can also, however, create insights and understandings into not only workplace relationships but also insights into our hundreds of personal relationships, outside the workplace.
Understanding the generational characteristics will allow managers to attract and retain talented and productive workers of all ages. Also the more aware business owners and leaders are of their workforces expectations, the easier they will find staff motivation and engagement. More diversity trainings should include generational awareness to facilitate interaction in the workforce. Communication is the cornerstone of generational integration in the work place, an appropriate technological training can help remove one of the greatest communication barriers.
Organizations that want to thrive in the future will need to have employees and managers who are aware of and skilled in dealing with generational differences and to create a work culture that encourages people from all generations to contribute to their fullest potential. References Generations At Work, Zemke, Raines, Filipczak, 2000 When Generations Collide, Lancaster and Stillman, 2002 Millennials Rising, Howe, Strauss, 2000 Geezers, grungers, gen-Xers and geeks-a look at workplace generational conflict, Tony Diromualdo, 8/14/06 The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe, 1997
How Veterans, Baby boomers, Generation Xers and Generation Nexters Can All Get Along in the Workplace, Zemke, Raines, Filipczak, 2006 End Notes  T. Brokaw, “The Greatest Generation” (New York: Random, 1998); W. Kiechel, “The Workaholic Generation,” Fortune, April 10, 1989, 50-62; L. Lancaster and D. Stillman, “When Generations Collide: How They Are. Why They Clash. How To Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work,” (New York: HarperBusiness, 2002); A. Perlik, “Get in Stride with Generation Y”, Restaurants & Institutions 111, no. 7 (2001): 65-68; J. Wallace, “After X Comes Y,” HR Magazine 46 no. (2001): 192; and R. Zemke, C. Raines and B. Filipczak, “Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace,” (New York: American Management Association, 2000).  B. Sago, “Uncommon Threads,” Business Credit 103, no. 6 (June 2001): 57-59; M. Kogan, “Bridging the Gap Across the Generation Divide in the Federal Workforce,” Government Executive 33, no. 12 (2001): 15-21; L. Lancaster and D. Stillman, “When Generations Collide: How They Are. Why They Clash. How To Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work,” (New York: HarperBusiness, 2002); B.
Sago, “Uncommon Threads,” Business Credit 103, no. 6 (June 2001): 57-59; and R. Zemke, C. Raines and B. Filipczak, “Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace,” (New York: American Management Association, 2000).  N. Howe and W. Strauss, “Millennials Rising: The Next Generation” (New York: Vintage Books, 2000).  P. J. Montana and J. A. Leneghan, “What Motivates and Matters Most to Generations X and Y,” Journal of Career Planning & Employment 4 (Summer, 1999): 27-30; and J. B.
Morris and N. R. Small, “Decline and Stabilization of Managerial Motivation Over a 20-year Period,” Journal of Applied Psychology 67, no. 3 (1971): 297-305. J. Polach, “Understanding the First Year of Employment,” Human Resource Development Quarterly 15, no. 1 (2004): 5-24.  W. Kiechel, “The Workaholic Generation,” Fortune, (April 10, 1989): 50-62; E. Thomas and J. S. Kunen, “Growing Pains at 40: As They Approach Mid-life, Baby Boomers Struggle to Have It All,” Time 127 (1986):22-31; R. Zemke, “Here Comes the Millenials,” Training 38, no. (2001): 44-50; R. Zemke, C. Raines and B. Filipczak, “Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace,” (New York: American Management Association, 2000); and J. B. Miner and N. R. Smith, “Decline and Stabilization of Managerial Motivation Over a 20-year Period,” Journal of Applied Psychology 67, no. 3 (1982): 297-305.  S. Hagevik, “From Ozzie and Harriet to the Simpsons: Generations in the Workplace,” Journal of Environmental Health, 61, no. 9 (1999): 39-41; B.
Merrick “Move Over, Generation X,” Credit Union Magazine, 67, no. 9 (2001): 8-19; S. R. Santos and K. Cox, “Workplace Adjustment and Intergenerational Differences Between Matures, Boomers and Xers,” Nursing Economics, 18 no 1 (2000): 7-25.  Big Grab for the Graduates. (1955, May 14). Newsweek, p. 93-94.  W. Strauss and N. Howe, “Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069,”(New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. ,1991).  Blessing and White, “Helping Others Succeed Program,” November 10, 2006, http://www. blessingwhite. com/capabilities. sp? pid=4  A number of authors were utilized to inspire the list of actions outlined. R. Zemke, C. Rainesand and B. Filipczak, “Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers,Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace,” (New York: American Management Association, 2000); and R. E. Quinn, S. R. Faerman, M. P. Thompson, and M. R. McGrath, “Becoming a MasterManager: A Competency Framework” (New York: Wiley, 1996). J. J. Dose, “The Diversity of Diversity: Work Values Effects on Formative Team Processes,” Human Resource Management Review 9, no. (1999): 83-109; C. Farren, “How to Eliminate the Generation Gap in Today’s Work Team, Employee Benefit News 13 no 7 (1999): 34-38; and G. R. Hickman and A. Creighton-Zollar, “Diverse Self-directed Teams: Developing Strategic Initiatives for 21st Century Organizations,” Public Personnel Management 27 no 1 (1998): 87-201; and and J. R. Katzenbach and D. K. Smith, “The Wisdom of Teams” (New York: Harper Business, 1993).  J. R. Katzenbach and D. K. Smith, “The Wisdom of Teams” (New York: Harper Business,1993). Table 1. Generational Comparison Traditionalists VeteransMaturesPre – 1946| BabyBoomers1946 – 1964| Generation XGen X / Xers1965 – 1980| Generation YMillennials1981 – 2000| Population Size| 75 Million| 80 Million| 46 Million| 75 Million| Influencers| The Great Depression; WWII; the GI Bill; the Cold War| Booming birthrate; Vietnam War; Watergate; Civil Rights Movement; sex, drugs, protests, dual incomes; economic prosperity| Sesame Street;MTV; personal computers, children of divorce, latch-key kids; AIDS, crack cocaine; loss of world safety| Expansion of technology and media; drugs and gangs; pervasive violence; widening gulf between have and have-not| Traditionalists VeteransPre – 1946| BabyBoomers1946 – 1964| Generation XGen X / Xers1965 – 1980| Generation YMillennials1981 – 2000| Traits| Most affluent generation; patriotic and loyal; onward and upward attitude; polite; fiscally conservative; faith in institutions; high work ethic; keepers of institutional memory; feel unappreciated and overlooked| The one’s running the show; most influential right now; optimistic; “sandwich generation” with elder-care concerns; responding to healthcare issues; kids in college; don’t like to ask for help; at risk for burnout| Mantra: “Prove it to me”; jaded generation; eclectic and resourceful; comfortable with change; self-reliant; high divorce rate; entrepreneurial and independent; innovative; generation that “got rid of the box”| The Digital Generation; globally concerned, cyber literate; media and technology savvy; expect 24-hour information; environmentally conscious; will try anything; need for immediate reward/gratification| Table 2. Traditional Career Development Model Table 3. Emerging Career Model