N.H.’s Changing Workforce: Bridging the generation gap

Multigenerational differences in the workplace might be most obvious on “Casual Fridays,” when some employees walk around the office in flip-flops and cargo shorts while others cringe at the thought of even loosening their tie.

In fact, because there are currently more generations working together in the workplace than ever before, different wardrobes and attitudes toward work in general are perhaps more prevalent than ever

Due to a rising retirement age, labor shortages across many industries and the financial need to continue working (especially as a result of the recession), workers are postponing retirement even longer. That means, in any given office, there may be employees from the World War II generation sharing printers and staplers with recent college graduates born in the ’80s.

And with these generation gaps, problems arise: More than one-third of all employees say they’ve experienced intergenerational conflict in the workplace, which can be difficult to diagnose because it’s not always clear the problem is generational.

For example, consider the older workers who view the casual attire of the younger employees as a sign of disrespect, while the younger people don’t think it’s a big deal, as long as they do their work.

‘Generational breakdowns’

There are four generations currently working today: anyone born before 1945 falls into the WWII Generation, often composed of traditionalists who grew up during the Depression and thus see work as a privilege; anyone born after the war and before 1964 are Baby Boomers, who are traditionally hard-working team players; anyone born between 1965 and 1980 is in Generation X and tends to be self-reliant and results-driven; and those born after 1980 fall into Generation Y (or Millennials), who tend to be plugged in and have higher expectations of work than previous generations.

Of course, there are generational overlaps and people who don’t fit neatly into the traits of their prescribed generation, but for the most part, “there is a reason that there are generational breakdowns,” says Phyllis Cohn, a national program consultant at AARP.

“A generation shares a common set of formative events and trends – headlines and heroes, music and mood, parenting style and education system,” reads the AARP report “Leading a Multigenerational Workforce.”

“As they grow older, they learn and grow. They adjust their behaviors and build their skills. But they generally do not radically change the way they view the world.”

One of the biggest conflicts arising in a multigenerational workforce is the propagation of negative stereotypes about members of a generation, says Cohn.

Take, for example, the assumption that older people cannot – or do not want to – learn how to use new technology. While this is oft repeated, Cohn says it’s simply untrue.

“The majority of older folks do know how to use computers,” she says, and often they’re “open to learning from the younger generation who have BlackBerrys and iPhones as extensions of their hand.”

But since the younger generation assumes the older doesn’t want to learn, they may not take steps to teach them.

The stereotypes go both ways, she says. Members of the older generation sometimes assume younger people do not take work seriously because their non-traditional schedules might mean they work in the early morning, go to the beach in the afternoon and work again at night.

“Just because they do work differently,” says Cohn, “that doesn’t mean they’re not serious about their job.”

Acknowledging these stereotypes is key to busting them, says Cohn: “I think if you go in with an open mindset and you let all your colleagues know you’re willing to learn who they are, what’s important to them, you can overcome those obstacles.”

New options

According to AARP, more than 60 percent of employers are facing intergenerational conflict but only a third of managers have been educated about ways to utilize mature workers.

Cohn says the reason for this discrepancy is that intergenerational workplace conflict is less tangible than, say, increasing efficiency, and management often assumes the problem will go away on its own.

But there are steps management can take to tackle the problem, one being to figure out the different motivators for each generation. While Baby Boomers may want the corner office, Gen X-ers might rather be allowed to work from home.

“People generally want the same things in the workforce: They want to be respected, remembered, they want to be consulted, they want to make connections with other people,” says Cohn. “But generationally, they want those things delivered in a different package.”

To continue to recruit the younger generations, companies are “going to have to look at changing the old way of doing new things” by offering things like stay-at-home options, she says.

Another method managers can use is to respond to the preferred communication styles of each generation. For instance, Boomers tend to always want to set up meetings, while Y-ers usually prefer frequent feedback.

Employees facing multigenerational conflict at work have a responsibility to talk to their employer about their needs and also what skills they bring to the table, says Cohn.

One method to consider is to hire or promote a young person to a middle-management position who can act as a bridge between the generations, says Cohn.

Generational conflicts in the workplace do not trump other conflicts – involving gender, race or politics – but they are important to consider “as being one piece as how we have to learn to look at people individually,” says Cohn.

“A workplace that has a whole multigenerational employee base is one that’s going to be more productive and more creative because you’re taking a blend of all the best qualities of all the generations,” says Cohn. “It’s a win-win for everybody when you’ve got four generations that can learn from each other.”