By Mark Turpin, CEO, HT Staffing
A real-time Google search on “generation wars in the workplace” yielded approximately 3.1 million hits. Intergenerational problems are a hot topic among management and HR professionals. But are companies struggling with generations warring in the workplace? What’s myth, and what’s real?
There are an unprecedented number of age groups working together and vying for positions in today’s job market. Four generations make up the greatest portion of the workforce in the U.S. These are the Traditionals, the Baby Boomers, the Gen Xers and the Millennials.
Traditionals, now in their 70’s and 80’s, survived the great depression and World War II together. Their plentiful offspring, the Baby Boomers, lived through the Viet Nam War, Woodstock and Watergate; they are currently in their 50’s and 60’s. Gen Xers (Generation X) were born to the early Baby Boom wave; now in their mid-30’s through mid-40’s, they were the first latchkey kids and the first to live and breathe computer and video games. The Millennials (also called Generation Y), in their 20’s and 30’s, are the children of the later-wave Boomers and the older Gen Xers; they are the “digital natives” who grew up with the Internet.
A fifth, up-and-coming generation is joining the workforce—the 14- through 19-year-old vanguard of the Mobile Generation, so dubbed because they are growing up with mobile phones and other portable technologies.
A generation is a group of people born within a given range of years in the same locale, and experiencing historic and cultural events at a common stage of life. It follows that people within a generation share common perceptions of the world. It also follows that this general worldview might vary from one generation to the net
Differences among Generations
It is easy to imagine that a Traditional and his great-grandson-aged Millennial co-worker might have different ideas about what workplace behavior is acceptable. According to a 2011 SHRM survey, close to half of the 434 HR professionals polled indicated younger workers in their organizations had expressed concern about their older managers’ resistance to change and tendency to micromanage. Approximately the same percentage of managers had complaints about younger workers’ inappropriate dress and poor work ethic.
It is important to note that the supervisory relationship goes both ways. Results from the SHRM survey show that 85 percent of companies polled have older employees reporting to younger managers or supervisors.
One real difference among generations is varying levels of comfort with the use of emerging technologies. Older workers are said to find younger employees too dependent on technology, and younger workers find their older counterparts resistant to learning new technologies.
What percentage of companies perceives generational differences as a significant management challenge? The tally from SHRM is 50/50—about a quarter of HR professionals reported their organizations experience significant levels of intergenerational conflict, and roughly the same proportion claimed it is a complete nonissue.
Different, yet the Same
A 2008 University of Minnesota literature review titled “Generational Differences in the Workplace” unsurprisingly points out differences among the generations’ priorities and motivations at work. These differences spring from the realities of the times in which each group was raised and prevailing conditions as they joined the workforce.
The study also points out strong similarities across age groups.
All four generations are concerned about doing the same work with fewer resources, and they are resistant to change that is disorganized, unnecessary or both. They all count the desktop computer and landline phone as their top two work-related communication tools. They value teamwork (although this is less true of the oldest group).
Flexibility in work hours is highly prized among all groups, assuming the work is completed when it needs to be. All of the generations seek a workplace culture that is fair and ethical above all else. Family is number one on their list of important life factors. Feeling valued, receiving recognition and appreciation and a supportive environment are seen as the top contributors to happiness in the workplace. They stay with an organization where they believe they have opportunities for advancement and development and where they feel respected.
Generational expert Sherry Lowry, located in Austin, Texas, emphasizes commonalities across groups. Lowry, a serial entrepreneur whose business-mentoring career spans 18 years, has formed a five-generation team called The Vision Enactor Collective (www.visionenactors.com). Her newest research examines the successful integration of generations within the market space. She comments, “People in every generation want to be respected for who they are and what they contribute. They want their differences to be appreciated. They want to be compensated fairly. They want to have a role.”
Lowry continues, “Any time you emphasize differences rather than commonalities and shared values, you create unnecessary strife. The irony is every single generation that has ever existed basically wants the same thing.”
Addressing the Challenges
Of the companies that see problems with managing across generations, how are they addressing those challenges? We at HT Staffing have seen organizations doing everything from adding intergenerational training to beefing up training in workplace expectations for new hires to increasing coaching and mentoring for management and their reports. Some companies have relaxed the dress code, while others have documented and enforced a stricter dress policy.
Sherry Lowry believes that focused, “let’s all get along” sessions can do more harm than good in building rapport among co-workers of varying ages. She recommends instead that companies leverage the respective strengths of each generation and the shared values among them by assigning multi-generation teams to work on assignments together. According to Lowry, hands-on, side-by-side collaboration produces less bias and more mutual appreciation and respect than training about differences.
Get-togethers away from the workplace are another effective way to foster mutual appreciation and respect among generations. Whether the event is a purely social one like a company picnic, or an offsite volunteer activity like working a shift at the local food bank, mingling in a non-work setting helps people get to know each other on a more personal level, which makes it easier to understand differences and discover similarities.
The fact is that differences do exist among workers of different ages, and some of these differences have generational ties. It is also true that people are people, and all groups, generally speaking, share certain values and preferences. In HT Staffing’s client base, the companies that have the most success are the ones that value each generation’s—and each individual’s strong suits.
Among the tactics that organizations are using to address generational challenges, a common strategy is improved communication. As workers of all ages become increasingly sophisticated, so grows the importance of transparent, interactive and frequent communication across generations, reporting levels and pay scales.
By Mark Turpin, CEO, HT Staffing