The Widening Generation Gap at Work
When Generations Collide...
by Lynne Lancaster & David Stillman
You two do that for a living?" asked David's seat mate, with a disapproving raise of the eyebrow.
Lynne observed David's reaction from across the aisle and hoped he wouldn't say something flippant. However, seeing as this was a 3˝-hour flight, and we had just leveled off, David calmed down and took a deep, cleansing breath.
The man's name was Paul. He was a craggy, 65-year-old Traditionalist and the CEO of a national warehousing and distribution company. He liked the aisle seat, a vodka and tonic with no ice, and an extra pillow. He was probably wondering what two upstarts like us were doing in first class, but he was too polite to let on. Instead, he kept probing.
"So tell me, what exactly does a generational expert do?" he asked with a patronizing but unmistakably curious tone.
Lynne jumped in: "We help employers and employees understand the differences between the generations, and we coach them in how to recruit, motivate, manage, and retain the generations more effectively."
Paul pondered this information, and we could tell that Lynne's description of our business had his wheels turning. We wondered if he, like so many successful leaders, had ever thought about generational differences as one of the fundamental reasons American companies are experiencing hiring challenges, skyrocketing turnover rates, increasing communication conundrums, and plummeting morale. Had he ever recognized that the clashes between Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials at work could take a direct toll on his bottom line?
Paul fixed David with a thoughtful gaze. "When I was young, I butted heads with my Dad. Now my son's in the business and we don't see eye to eye. Haven't there always been generational conflicts in the workplace?"
"Sure," David responded. "The generations have always clashed. But the generation gaps in the workplace today are wider than ever and of greater strategic importance. Think about it. Americans are living and working longer. The average life expectancy at birth in the year 1900, was forty-seven. Today it's closing in on eighty. Suddenly, four generations are facing off across the conference table instead of just one or two."
"OK," Paul replied, "but what's the problem? As I see it, more generations mean more available workers."
"That's a good point," David responded. "But what most people overlook is that each generation brings its own unique set of values, beliefs, life experiences, and attitudes to the workplace, and that can be the problem. Take your generation, the Traditionalists. You grew up under the shadow of the Great Depression and felt lucky to have jobs. If we have learned one thing in our research, it is just how strong Traditionalists' beliefs are when it comes to patriotism, hard work, and respect for leaders, among other values they bring to the workplace."
"Now, compare that to my generation," David continued. Paul eyed David's tee-shirt and parachute pants travel ensemble. "Hmmm, and exactly what generation would that be?" he queried with a raised eyebrow.
"Generation X," David responded proudly. "We grew up seeing too many businesses downsize or merge, and we learned that the last thing we could trust was the permanence of the workplace. Let's face it, by the time we hit the job market the employer-employee contract was already out the window and Social Security was headed down the toilet. And it sure didn't help that we've always been told we would never do as well as our parents had. As a result, we need to be recruited, rewarded, and managed differently than the Boomers if you hope to make my generation a contributing, loyal part of your workforce."
Paul turned back to Lynne. "I assume you're an Xer too?"
"I must admit to actually being a Baby Boomer," she responded, blushing. David rolled his eyes and thought about grabbing the airsickness bag.
"So, Boomer, what's your story?" Paul demanded.
"Well," answered Lynne, "When you've had to vie with 80 million peers every step of your career, you're bound to be competitive. We were raised by parents who convinced us we could make the world a better place; as a result we tend to be idealists. Plus, we've seen major changes in the economy during our lifetimes, like the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy. We couldn't assume we'd be able to follow in our parents' footsteps, and therefore, we came to the workplace with a strong desire to put our own stamp on things."
"Yeah, I've definitely locked horns with a few of you in my workplace," confirmed Paul with a nod of his head.
Lynne continued: "You have to put the generations in an economic context. The long economic expansion of the 90s created a situation of almost full employment in the U.S. The younger generations were promoted rapidly and were offered more financial and job growth opportunities than ever in history. Rather than paying their dues for a number of years they've been able to demand that the companies adapt to their ways of doing things. This created both a culture clash and a resentment backlash as the generations collided around issues of fairness and opportunity.
"At the same time, low unemployment levels created major staffing problems. For example, a client who owns a box factory in Catawba City, North Carolina, complained to us in 2000 that his town's unemployment rate had dropped to .8%! Imagine trying to recruit a workforce to operate a noisy plant that smells like diesel fumes, when the same workers can find jobs at an air-conditioned mall for the same money-and enjoy the scent of Mrs. Fields' Cookies!"
"Now hold on there," Paul interrupted, "let's face it, as soon as our economy takes a nose dive, the younger generations are going to have to come begging for jobs."
"But that's only part of the picture," David countered....
The "War for Talent" is fierce. Because Generation X is just a little over half the size of the Baby Boom, regardless of what happens with the economy, fewer workers will be available in the age group that's currently poised to move into the management ranks. At the same time, a very large number of Boomers will become eligible to retire over the next few years, leaving a leadership gap in the upper echelons of organizations. Many Traditionalists will be able to afford to leave the work world at relatively young ages, and the bulk of the Millennials are still a decade or two away from filling management gaps. The result is that businesses will have to fight harder to recruit and retain the best and brightest employees. We help organizations understand how demographic shifts can affect their recruiting and succession planning, which gives them a distinct competitive advantage.
Lynne offered some hard-core proof: "Consider this, Paul. In their recent "War for Talent" study, McKinsey & Company estimated that over the next fifteen years, the demand for bright, talented 35-45 years olds will increase by 25%, while the supply is predicted to decrease by 15%. We are facing tangible worker shortages that are expected to continue for some time. Companies have to start preparing now for a mass exodus of know-how and experience that they're going to have to replace from a much smaller pool of talent that comes with a very different set of values and expectations."
"So we're headed for a sort of talent war and a culture clash," Paul summarized, waving at the flight attendant for another drink.
"Be glad you're not in the same boat as one of our Fortune 500 manufacturing clients," Lynne offered. "According to their head of human resources, the company's strategic plan calls for recruiting 30,000 new people over the next ten years into a traditional company that's not exactly known for its high tech bells and whistles. Companies like that are going to face huge hiring challenges!"
The drink cart suddenly blocked Paul's view of Lynne, so he turned to David in hopes of some better news. Sadly, he was out of luck.
"Turnover rates are increasing too," David added. "Every industry is reporting higher turnover, the costs of which include tangible expenses like the costs of recruiting, hiring and training new workers, as well as intangibles like reduced morale and decreased efficiency. Not to mention the brain drain that occurs when the most skilled employees walk out the door. What we help companies to realize is that culture clashes between the generations directly affect turnover. A culture that has been shaped by the values, standards and policies of one generation isn't necessarily going to be compatible with the next generation that comes through the door. When generation gaps are opened up at work, employees who don't feel they 'fit' decide to leave."
Lynne jumped in: "It's not just the Xers who feel out of place. Human resource managers tell us they are losing too many Traditionalists because they're feeling outmoded. We often have to help companies find ways to get their valuable senior workers to stay. Organizations that can understand and bridge the generation gap have a real competitive edge in the retention game.
"Then there's also the fact that the accelerating pace of change over the past century has made it increasingly difficult for the generations to find common ground. A few decades ago, three or four generations might have gathered together to listen to The Shadow on the radio. Now we hear a Traditionalist complaining there's nothing decent on television, a Boomer still lamenting the demise of M*A*S*H*, an Xer reminiscing about the tawdry goings-on at Melrose Place, and a Millennial waxing lyrical over My So-Called Life. As a result it's no longer possible to assume that a multigenerational group of employees standing around the water cooler has the same life experiences and cultural touchstones in common. This can translate into communication challenges and a breakdown of the bonds that hold companies together. My grandmother grew up in a house without electricity, just like every generation did before her. Now I have a six-year-old Millennial niece who will never know a world without the World Wide Web.
"The technological revolution has exacerbated the situation. The advent of the Internet, supercomputers and high-speed connections is driving massive change in the ways companies do business. This has put a greater divide between the generations who grew up with technology and the ones who are playing catch-up."
"OK," Paul said decisively, as he brought his seat into the locked and upright position in preparation for landing, "how do we make this problem go away?"
We both hesitated, feeling a little sorry to tell him that it won't just "go away." While many hope that Traditionalists will eventually retire, that Boomers will relax and get a life, that Xers will quit challenging the status quo, and that Millennials won't present a whole new set of challenges when they arrive on the scene, the fact is that generational differences are here to stay.
While economic slowdowns are likely to make the job market tighter, it doesn't change the fact that different generations of employees won't become more alike with age. They will carry their "generational personalities" with them throughout their lives. In fact, when hard times hit, the generations are likely to entrench themselves even more deeply into the attitudes and behaviors that have been ingrained in them. With the arrival of the Millennial Generation on the scene, the gaps are only going to get wider.
As the plane began a gentle descent, three generations quietly stowed their tray tables.
"Well," said Paul gruffly, breaking the silence. "I guess we have to stop trying to figure out which generation is right and which one is wrong, and instead figure out how to manage them appropriately."
He paused. "You know, this isn't really an obstacle-it's an opportunity, a tool in the arsenal that somebody like me can turn into a competitive advantage. As I see it, if we figure out the generations and make the adjustments needed to recruit, retain and manage them, then it's just one more way to run our competitors into the ground, right?"
We both nodded because we couldn't have said it better ourselves.
The plane touched down. Paul grabbed Forbes and Fortune from the seat pocket in front of him. Lynne picked up her untouched copy of American Demographics and noticed David hiding his People magazine under his coat. It was way more fun to connect with the generations than to read about them anyway.
Paul reached out a hand holding his business card. "Let's stay in touch," he offered. We might just have the need for another conversation."
We thanked Paul in unison, and he exited through the forward door with a wave. Just a few hours earlier we weren't so sure Paul relished his seat between the two of us. Now, we all felt like a million bucks. A good conversation, a multigenerational connection-what more could you ask for?
Copyright Lynne Lancaster & David Stillman. All Rights Reserved.
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