Bridge the Gaps

Aug. 7, 2003

Recognize, respect, and enjoy the strengths of diverse generations

To foster a healthy work environment, along with respecting the differences between the sexes and among the races, we also need to consider diversity among generations.

Traditionally, different generations had specific roles and clearly defined job positions. Older employees would be in head offices and leadership roles, middle-aged employees occupied middle management positions, and the youngest and physically strongest were on the factory floor. Employees mostly communicated with others who shared their positions.

Now, we see quite of bit of intergenerational interaction. It's not uncommon to see some young pipsqueak running the plant and leading a team of older employees. So its obvious that unless we deal with generation gaps we may face a lot of misunderstandings and resentment.

In their book, Generations at Work, Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak consider how to do just that. Intergenerational conflict stems from the different ways the generations view things--their values and the way they work, talk, and think about all the things that set people apart.

Generations are defined by sharing a place in history. They share events, images, tastes, attitudes, and experiences. Their coincidence of birth dates means they end up going through life events at the same level of maturity.

Perhaps simplistically, Generations at Work defines the generations as:

* Veterans (b. 1922-1943), the Kennedy, Carter, Dole, Bush Generation: Veterans are traditionalists. Seeing the future as the product of the past, they are past-oriented and history-absorbed. They are conservative spenders and have civic pride. Solid and reliable conformers, they like consistency and uniformity, and on a grand scale. Trusting in logic, they are disciplined, patient, and willing to wait for rewards. They have respect for authority, believe in law and order, and play by the rules. As employees, Veterans are stable, detail-oriented, thorough, loyal, and hardworking. They have difficulty handling ambiguity and change. Reluctant to buck the system and uncomfortable with conflict, they tend to be silent when they disagree.

* Baby Boomers (b. 1943-1960), the Clinton Generation: Boomers believe in growth and expansion and tend to be optimistic. They seek immediate gratification and manipulate rules to meet their own needs. They redefine roles, promote equality, and seek to be cool, trend-setting stars of the show. At the same time, they are introspective and have learned a lot about teamwork in their lives. As employees, Boomers are service-oriented and willing to go the extra mile. They are good at relationships: They want to please and are good team players, but are uncomfortable with conflict and reluctant to go against peers. They are overly sensitive to feedback, yet judgmental of others who see things differently. They may put process before results, are self-centered, and are not budget-minded.

* Gen Xers (b.1960-1980), the Invisible or Lost Generation: Gen Xers are self-reliant. They seek a sense of family. They want a balance: Work is work, they work to live, not the other way around. They have a nontraditional orientation about time and space: As long as they get their work done, it doesn't matter when. They are more likely to telecommute. They like informality--their approach to authority is casual, and they are skeptical. Technologically savvy, they are attracted to edgy interests outside of work and are positive about their personal futures. As employees, Gen Xers are comfortable with change and enjoy autonomy. They like feedback, and are unintimidated by authority. They are technoliterate and creative, but may be impatient. They often have poor people skills and may be cynical.

* Nexters (b.1980-2000), the Digital Technology Generation: Nexters are resilient. They believe in honesty and integrity and are very moral, and they trust centralized authority. Confident and optimistic, they believe in hard work and goal-setting, and expect to put in more than 40 hours a week to achieve the lifestyle they want. As employees, Nexters are technologically savvy and have multitasking capabilities, but they need supervision and structure. They work well in teams and believe in collective action, and have a heroic spirit when facing overwhelming odds. They are a demanding workforce because they are used to getting what they want.

One of the most effective ways to combat conflict is through aggressive communication that validates the differences among generations. We want the fresh perspective from the young and the wisdom from the experienced.

Another approach to use is difference deployment. Rather than requiring employees to fit in, carefully select employees with different backgrounds, experience, skills, and viewpoints to strengthen teams, departments, and customer contacts.

The idea is to learn all you can about your coworkers and strive to accommodate and take advantage of their specific needs and characteristics.

Bettyann Lichtenstein is a licensed clinical therapist. 



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