In my CEO networking groups, I keep hearing frustrations about how Generation X employees don’t work well with Millennials or Baby Boomers. Or when Millennials and Baby Boomers are on the same team, certain disagreements often come up. And I often hear a certain ambivalent bracing for change as Gen Z college grads are starting to enter the workforce.
For the first time, we have four (sometimes five) generations in the workforce, with employees born anywhere between the mid-1940s and the late 1990s. It’s no wonder that conflict arises as each generation brings its own strengths and challenges to today’s fast-paced, digitally connected global community of workers.
Who are the generations? What are some of the most common clashes? As leaders, how can we help our people and our organizations overcome the frustrations and focus on the potential benefits of generational diversity? Here are my thoughts on how corporations and government agencies can bridge generational differences in the workplace.
At a Glance: Four Generations
Of course, every employee is unique and has their own history, perspectives and approach to work. Still, I find it helpful to call to mind some of the events and technologies that have shaped core traits of each generation.
- Baby Boomers (Born 1946 – 1964): Boomers grew up in the predictable world of the Cold War, “good versus evil” movies and black and white TVs. As they came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s, the status quo was starting to be challenged. Color TVs and portable (transistor) radios portrayed opposition to the Vietnam war, the space race and early questioning of racism and sexism.
Boomers are known for a strong work ethic, being team-oriented and calm in a crisis. As this Entrepreneur article describes it, “They have a knack for being able to question authority and, simultaneously, to be authoritative.”
- Generation X (Born 1965 – 1979): Gen Xers were the first latchkey kids of dual income and single family households. The lying politicians of Watergate and parents getting laid off from work created skepticism of institutions. Sesame Street, Sony’s Walkman and early personal computers provided diversions designed to entertain.
Gen Xers are self-reliant, generally informal and seek work/life balance. They’ve been figuring things out their entire lives and place high value on resourcefulness.
- Millennials (Born 1980 – 1994): Millennials grew up with MTV, always-on CNN and the emergence of the Internet. The recession of the early 1980s was quickly behind them and the economy grew as it morphed into the dot.com boom (then bust) of the early 1990s. Parents (often divorced) kept child Millennials busy and sheltered from disappointments. Questions of race and gender re-emerged as unresolved issues.
Achievement means a lot to most Millennials. They are tech-savvy, confident, competitive and often more self-focused than team-focused.
- Generation Z (Born 1995 – 2014): Surrounded by personal computers, mobile phones, the web and cable TV, this group was immersed in images and reports of world events around them. As this Holmes Report article puts it, “This group saw a world with angst as the norm; 9/11 was followed by terrorist fears, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the financial meltdown, not to mention climate change and lowered lifestyle expectations.” Many Gen Zers are multiracial and gender identity is now a spectrum, so diversity is simply part of life.
This generation is truly “wired.” They are always-connected, entrepreneurial and known for being accepting of differences.
Common Culture Clashes
So what happens when employees from different generations are placed in the same work environment? A lot! I recently participated in a survey conducted by our friends at insight180 on just this topic. While the full results are not yet available, they’ve granted me permission to share a few participant responses that help to capture these top areas of frustration.
- Use of Technology. Gen Z and Millennials are masters of technology and value doing work and staying connected in a way that blurs the traditional work/life boundaries. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are digital immigrants. They learned technology – first email, then the Internet and now smartphones – as adults and believe technology at work should be for work purposes.
Baby Boomer Quote
“The distraction of cell phones irritates the hell out of me! This inability to stay off of a phone for any length of time is something I do not understand.”
Generation X Quotes
“Some of the younger workers have no accountability. Like using their personal phones/texting while at work.”
“Technology and social media presence is ignored by older generations and thought of as unreliable and luxurious.”
“I introduced a new scheduler system to the department and my GM came to me (after only two weeks) and said we need to go back to the old system because team members were complaining, specifically that they were the ones that were all over 50 years old.”
“[Older generations] lack knowledge of social media platforms to elevate the work we are doing.”
- Work Ethic. Team-oriented Boomers are loyal to employers. They worked hard to get where they are. Gen Xers value a work/life balance, but feel a responsibility to get things done. They value figuring things out and finding answers. Millennials grew up having a full schedule outside of their home and school life and finding answers at the click of a button. For Gen Zers, being connected to others day and night is a constant. There aren’t hard lines between school/work time and personal time.
Baby Boomer Quotes
“Millennials aren’t interested in working overtime. They are out the door at 5:00 on the dot regardless if the task they are working on is done.”
“The definition of work ethic and focus on work vs. family balance creates conflict. Balance is a new concept to Baby Boomers!”
Generation X Quote
“There is a difference in patience – where my generation is willing to make the investment and watch it grow, the next generation seeks immediate change and if they don’t get it, they move onto a different solution.”
“I have a hard time working a 9-5. I do best sometimes late at night, my optimum performance would be achieved by working hours spread out over the day. Many workplaces were very inflexible with this (aka, 8:30-5:30 with mandatory lunch) and I was written up or penalized for not being on time or “hours in office” even if there was never a performance complaint and I was often cited as exceeding expectations.”
“Baby Boomers generalize Millennials as the “me” generation, but are incapable of striking their own work-life balances.”
“We tend to expect everyone to be as connected as we are and easily blend work and life.”
- Learning. We have a general understanding that there are differences among the generations when it comes to learning preferences. Face-to-face training and mentoring are often a more natural fit for Baby Boomers and Generation X. Short videos and eLearning is comfortable for Millennials and Generation Z. These responses also reveal differences in attitudes about how others learn (or are reluctant to change).
Baby Boomer Quote
“Other generations seem not to understand how long it takes to attain mastery of something and that sometimes you have to wait your turn.”
Generation X Quote
“Millennials I’ve worked with show less initiative and are harder to manage as they want everything detailed on what they need to do, and don’t do more or less. It is frustrating that Millennials don’t seem to see the bigger picture and don’t take constructive criticism well.”
“My generation tends to pick up things quickly (especially computers), where others tend to struggle more. We are also more willing to try and test the water before asking questions.”
“Older generations tend to be less flexible and say “we’ve always done XYZ this way” instead of being open to process change and streamlining efficiency. I’ve noticed some work harder, not smarter.”
“Younger people tend to be tech savvy but often struggle to find solutions “offline” while older people tend to be slow or stubborn when it comes to keeping up with tech changes.”
How to Lead Through the Generations
At its core, I believe the clash between generations is a communication issue. It’s a lack of understanding – a lack of empathy.
When I started working, all I knew was to join the company, work hard and if the boss needed something extra you work harder. It’s not like that today. Today, there’s technology, social media, seamless connections across countries, an acceptance of diversity and change.
As leaders, we need to understand the impact of today’s realities and take steps to shape our organizations and workforces for the future. It takes some re-thinking and questioning of what we’ve always done to find the right solutions for the company and employees with the skills we need.
You (we) can do it. IT security once refused to allow employees to use their personal devices at work due to security concerns. But today, most companies have security protocols to protect company data that is shared on personal devices. Social media used to be banned at work; now, it’s a core way that companies communicate with their customers.
“Everyone has different strengths, experiences, Baby Boomers are really great with one on one networking and bring decades of experience. Millennials are very open-minded, ready for new experiences and eager to learn.”
– a Gen Xer
“The older generations have a much better understanding on how to work around certain tasks due to their experience in the field. They are a great help to learn more about the work we do.”
– a Gen Zer
I encourage you to do what I and my CEO colleagues continue to do: learn what each generation does well. Consider using those strengths to build your business and workforce development strategy. Re-think company policies about communications, security and productivity. Change those that make sense to change, to position your company and employees for the next generation of success.