Weekly Feature

generation gaps, generational divide, baby boomers work

The Generation Gap at Work

November 06, 2008
by Liz Colville
Exploring the generational rifts and bridges in the workplace, some surprising commonalities can be found between the traditionalists, baby boomers, and generations X and Y.

Lack of Teamwork

In the workplace, generational divides can threaten to cripple productivity and performance. This year, Randstadt USA’s annual World of Work study suggested that while there isn’t a lack of talent in the current pool of workers, there could be soon if the generations don’t collaborate more. This doesn’t mean older workers mentoring younger ones, but rather creating teams and departments in which all generations are included. Financial Week writes that, according to the study, “although boomers have a lot of knowledge and experience to share with Gen Y workers, 51% of them and 66% of matures reported little or no interaction with their Gen Y colleagues.”


“I've never seen such a crowd of overachievers in my life,” Liz Ryan, a former HR executive, says of her experience teaching Generation Ys at her local university. “The very last thing they are is slackers. Yet they've got that label—along with the labels self-absorbed, overly social, and lacking a work ethic.” Ryan contends in a recent BusinessWeek article that Generation Y may be one of the most hardworking generations in some time, contrary to what many in the working world say about their young employees. “Yes, managing Gen Y types will stretch our leadership muscles,” Ryan admits, because Gen Y members have serious wanderlust. But “What’s wrong with that?” she asks.

Less Gaps, More Bridges

The so-called “value differences” between the generations may not be as great as we think they are. In fact, they might not actually be present at all, contends a July 2008 article in Government Executive. “While similarities among generations certainly exist, it’s the differences that receive the lion’s share of attention” from research groups. John Crum, a psychologist interviewed by Government Executive, “remembers a similar wave of generational research in the 1980s that compared baby boomers to the World War II generation and concluded the two groups were radically different. Those perceived differences have fallen by the wayside as those generations became accustomed to working together.”

Gen Y Wanderlust

But the branding of Gen Y workers as last-minute achievers, multitaskers and ambitious wanderers remains. As a 2007 Harvard Business Review article noted, Gen Y members “are often not a good bet for long-term employment, because they are quite willing to seek other employment (or no employment) rather than remain in a job in which they are not growing.”

Indeed, according to a 2008 study by the group Sirota Survey Intelligence, the so-called Traditionalists—the 63-and-over generation—have the highest “employee engagement” of all generations the survey polled. The term “employee engagement” refers to a combination of “overall satisfaction with their jobs, pride in working for their employers, whether they would recommend their organizations as a place to work, and their willingness to put forth an extra effort.” Many insiders assert that “job loyalty is a thing of the past.” However, in Sirota’s survey, the younger generations were found to be only a few percentage points behind their elders.

In CNN/Money, Dan Kadlec shares some more myths about the younger generations that make up today’s workforce, arguing that the youngsters do have a work ethic; don’t “love change” as much as everyone says they do; aren’t terribly independent, as the “change” model might suggest; and do have respect for their elders. His words to the wise about working with X and Y: “Look at the results, not the process.”

A Techie Divide?

As legal librarian Genevieve Zook writes in the legal publication LLRX, technology is certainly shifting the way workplaces function, as the generations treat online applications like Twitter differently. Privacy is eschewed in favor of publicity, both in one’s social life and work life: “[T]hose who have grown up using new technologies [use them to] search the globe for friends, contacts, and merchandise; for them, lack of privacy is not so much an annoyance as part of the marketing package.” But Zook insists that professionals, particularly librarians, are game to eliminate stereotypes, and thus are “early adopters of new products,” finding value in tools like online chat and Facebook at the library circulation desk. New forms of communication appear to be more beneficial than they are detrimental, even as they change the way workers talk to each other.

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