We’ve all heard complaints about the clashing of generations within the workplace. Some baby boomers argue that Generation X employees are cynical and millennials need constant praise and coddling. Likewise, younger workers may think that boomers are settled in repetitious hourly work schedules and refuse to change their routines or communication style. It is important to recognize that such generalizations block collaboration among multiple generations within organizations and impede organizational effectiveness. As part of a three-part series, we will approach the issue of generational work styles from multiple angles, debunking inaccurate assumptions while searching for constructive ways to capitalize upon the potential differences that do exist among workers of varying generations.
The baby boomer generation, typically defined as individuals born between 1946 and 1964, has been characterized as living within a time of great social change and increasing affluence. Those in Generation X were born between 1965 and 1976 and have been influenced by the expansion of technology and the mass media market. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, were born between 1977 and 1998 and have been even more heavily inundated by the rise of technological innovations, especially instant communication technologies and social media.
A considerable amount of research has revealed that one’s generation influences one’s values, attitudes, work style and communication preferences. Likewise, people born at the beginning or end of a generation — sometimes referred to as “tweeners” — can exhibit values and attitudes from two different generations. Within the workplace, there can be different perspectives on issues such as work ethic, leadership and authority among employees of different generations. These differences can cause conflict, frustration and misunderstanding if not managed well.
However, in considering generational work styles, it is important to remember that individuals are shaped and influenced by many things other than their generation. For this and many other reasons, generational labels should be considered with openness to variation and more than a little skepticism. Although research on stereotypes suggests that it is much easier cognitively to create overarching statements about the characteristics that define a generation, making all-encompassing statements about workers according to age does not often facilitate collaboration and partnerships. We begin our conversation, then, in discussing similarities among workers of different generations in order to forge productive and positive partnerships.
Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership over a seven-year period found that the top three values of all generations were the same — family, love and integrity. Other studies in organizational behavior find that people seek similar factors in the workplace. Regardless of a worker’s generational identity, the following factors are likely important to them: effective leadership and supervision, opportunities for learning and advancement, social support in the workplace, a sense of inclusion and work-life balance. Even across generational divides, workers have similar, overlapping desires for work-life fit and, specifically, for greater flexibility in the workplace.