Employees of different generations will inevitably come into conflict, Larry and Meagan Johnson, the father and daughter team that authored Generations Inc: Managing the Frictions Between Generations at Work, told attendees at an April 26 seminar at the AGS Conclave in Miami.
According to survey data, 60 percent of employees report tension between the generations, and 70 percent of older employees are dismissive of younger employees’ talents.
That is the result of different perceptions, the speakers argued, because of what they called “generational signposts.”
As part of an exercise, attendees described members of “Generation Y,” defined as people born after 1980. Frequently used words and phrases included: “entitled,” “don’t take initiative,” “disrespectful,” and “all over the place.”
But the speakers noted that past age groups, including the Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, were also described that way by members of the preceding generations.
“Whenever a new generation enters the marketplace, the more seasoned generation often uses the same terms to describe the younger generation,” said Meagan Johnson. “We assume that the younger generation will behave the same way we did at that age.”
The speakers then reviewed how different age groups were shaped by world events and societal trends. The “traditional generation” was born before 1945, and their generational signposts include World War II and the Great Depression.
This group learned to work together for the common good. As a result, a lot of the technology they created, including dishwashers, remain part of our everyday lives. Their number one complaint today is that younger workers don’t ask for their opinion.
The next group is the Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964—the largest generation in American history. Baby boomers were the first “child-focused generation,” as well as the first generation that was expected to complete their education. Their careers plays an important role in their lives, not just in their self-worth, but in their effort to leave a lasting legacy.
“Here’s your challenge with baby boomers: They know that there is a way to get things done that is written in the employee handbook, and the way you really get it done,” Meagan Johnson said. “They have it all in their head.”
Larry Johnson noted that when the baby boomers retire, they will leave a “huge hole” because of all the information they have acquired.
“We have to do everything we can to get all their knowledge out of them,” he said.
Baby boomers are also known for questioning the rules.
“By challenging the rules, we saw the desegregation of schools,” Meagan Johnson said. “By challenging the rules, the job market began to open up for women.”
They are also community-oriented: They love to have meetings, and tend to refer to their company as a “family.”
However, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, has a more cynical view of families, since more than half have divorced parents. They were also the first generation to have both parents in the workforce.
“When Gen-X came home, Mom’s not there, Dad’s not there,” she said. “We called them latch-key kids. They became our most independent generation. They say: Tell me what you want to done, and leave me alone."
Gen-Xers also grew up with television. Sesame Street was a turning point, because it made educational enjoyable.
“For Gen-X and all successive generations, learning and fun are intertwined,” she said.
This group also experienced the stock market crash of 1987, and the subsequent recession, where their parents who thought they had lifetime jobs were let go.
“Generation X is loyal to themselves,” she said. “They are the first generation to perceive themselves as a commodity.”
Gen-X-ers are so independent, Larry Johnson noted, that they often resist orders from authority. The way to reach out to them, is to help them understand why things need to be done, and to let them see “the big picture.”
Finally, Gen Y-ers are also a sizable generation, but a far less independent group than Generation X.
“We don’t use latch-key kids to describe Generation Y,” Meagan said. “We talk about stay-at-home dads, soccer moms. This generation has remained very close to their parents. The average age of their leaving home is 26.”
This generation is used to collaborating with their family. They are big consumers, spending five times more than their parents at the same age. They can handle constructive criticism as long as it comes from what they see as a “trusted advisor.”
Technology is also this generation’s “native language,” she noted. “They spend an average of six hours a day learning this technology.”
For many Gen Y-ers, “Facebook and Twitter are not toys, they are tools,” she says. “If you are saying that you are not going to learn the business application of social media, it’s the same as saying you are not going to learn to use email, when email came out. [Social media] does not replace face-to-face communication, but it is a new form of communication.”