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The Clash Generation

What happens when four generations are put to work in the same place?

By Michelle Neely Martinez

Spend a day in almost any neatly designed, yet tightly packed, white-collar office environment and you’ll likely hear the grumbles of irritation as people with different styles of working, communicating and thinking are tossed together, side by side, cubicle by cubicle. Unlike any other time in history, four generations of employees are now working together, often disagreeing about processes, ideas, ways of working—all of which can affect productivity, retention and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line.

Charlie, for example, is 61 and desperate for straightforward guidance from his 43-year-old boss, Mary. She, in turn, using her trademark heartfelt, buzzword-laden management style attempts to radically alter Charlie’s work processes. Meanwhile, Jane, the 29-year-old technical wizard, sits sullenly in her cubicle, unimpressed with either one and wishing they would take their conversation somewhere else.

“None of them understands the other,” explains Claire Raines, workplace consultant, public speaker and co-author of the book Generations at Work. “They don’t know how to communicate with each other, and it’s causing headaches and havoc for managers trying to mold this hodge-podge of ages, faces, values and views into a productive, collaborative group.”

Raines works with organizations to dispel the turmoil among workers and encourage respect for each generational group’s contributions. When asked what is one of the most talked about managerial predicaments among her clients and audiences, she says: “From the majority of boomer-age managers, it’s how to deal with Generation Xers. Boomer managers want to know, ‘When are the Generation Xers going to grow up and be like us?’ There’s a lot of generational wrangling going on, especially between these two groups.

“Many Boomers tend to be self-righteous about their accomplishments and their hard-driving work ethic. They have a difficult time understanding the attitudes of Gen Xers. It’s ironic, since Gen Xers are moving into positions of power—into jobs where Boomers are reporting to them. The Gen Xers have always had to adapt, but for Baby Boomers, having to adapt to new management styles and work techniques is something new,” Raines says.

Smoothing Lines of Communication

According to Raines, there are some simple first steps to take to ease generational tension at work.

A good start: Conducting a demographic audit of the workplace; then, offering employees general training that discusses working with people of diverse age groups.

“A brief exposure to the ‘generations at work’ issue is one way to get people thinking about how to work with such diversity and value it,” Raines says.

The On the Border restaurant chain, for example, trains servers in generational communication through a half-day program that teaches servers about the different generations and the type of service each responds to best. Then, participants practice tailoring their approach, language, pace and attitude to different generational scenarios.

“Veterans are turned off by the chummy, casual service younger people sometimes deliver,” explains Raines. “A veteran-age man took his wife out for a romantic evening at a new upscale French bistro in his Midwestern town. The server sat down at the table with the couple to discuss the menu, a technique some Boomers might actually find rather appealing. But, this customer was so astounded at what he considered to be disrespectful behavior that he won’t be returning to that restaurant again.”

Another step managers and employers can take is to evaluate the existing training offered to employees, keeping in mind the different learning styles of each—a style that is often determined by the way they were taught in school. Raines explains:

“[Most] Veterans respond well to a traditional classroom environment and to lectures and presentations given by experts. They respond best to language that is logical and non-emotional, and to information that is organized, well researched and supported by facts, figures, details and examples. On-the-job training works well with this generation when it is respectful, non-threatening and risk free.

“Boomers respond well to a variety of training formats. Boomers see information as a reward, and they’re always looking for new ways to ‘win’ on the job. They like books, videos, self-help guides and audiotapes they can listen to on their morning and evening commutes. In the training room, Boomers enjoy a more casual atmosphere than the Veterans, and they prefer a more participative, interactive format. However, Boomers do not respond well to role-playing.

“Statistically, Xers are far less likely to visit the self-help section of the bookstore to develop a new skill or increase their knowledge of a topic. But, Xers are far more comfortable learning from a computer than the older generations. Whereas the Boomers have avoided role-playing like the plague, trainers in a variety of industries say they can’t build in enough role-playing for their Gen Xer learners, who appreciate the opportunity to practice their skills and get feedback and coaching on the spot.

“Generation Next (also referred to as Generation Y) are used to learning in a highly interactive way. In the school classroom, Nexters spend a lot of time working on projects in teams.”

Many employers may not give generational issues much thought, but maybe it’s time managers do... for the sake of better relations and better business.

The Four Generations in Today’s Workplace

The Veterans
1922-1943 (52 million people)—

Those born prior to World War II and those whose earliest memories and influences are associated with that world-encompassing event.

The Baby Boomers
1943-1960 (73.2 million people)—

Those born during or after World War II and raised in the era of extreme optimism, opportunity and progress.

Generation Xers
1960-1980 (70.1 million people)—

Those born after the Baby Boom and who came of age deep in the shadow of the Boomers.

Generation Nexters (Gen Y)
1980-2000 (69.7 million people to date)—

Those born of the Baby Boomers and early Xers and into our current high-tech, neo-optimistic time.

*Statistics are approximate and based on information contained in the book Generations at Work.

Michelle Neely Martinez is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in career development, human resources and workplace management issues.

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