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May 25, 2006

Beating the generation gap at work

On this Memorial Day, which of the following are you most likely to do?

• Display the flag at home, visit a cemetery and line up to watch the local parade.

• Catch up on some work.

• Devote time to your personal life.

• Listen to your iPod while checking out some web sites on your cell phone and IM-ing your friends.

Your choice could well be determined by when you were born, according to Laura Maxwell, a facilitator for the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) who led a workshop that explored the differences between generations.

Maxwell presented the case that each generation is distinct in its traits, values and experiences, a fact that is having a significant impact on communication and efficiency in today’s workplace.

“It’s the first time in history that the workplace has four distinct generations,” Maxwell said at the May 17 workshop, titled “Professionalism in an Evolving World. “It’s really an issue, it’s current and it’s pervasive: How do you talk — and how don’t you talk — to workers from different generations?”

The field of workplace management even has spawned a burgeoning field of generational experts who advise employees — particularly, but not exclusively, managers — on the vagaries of interpersonal communication between generations.

In a nutshell, traditionalists (those born before 1946) are patriotic, loyal and respectful of authority; baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are optimistic and define themselves by their work; Generation X or gen-Xers (born 1965-1980) are skeptical, self-reliant and need balance between their work and personal life, and Generation Y, also called millennials or nexters (born after 1981), are optimistic, well-educated but naive, and constantly multi-tasking.

Where one falls in that spectrum does not determine one’s traits absolutely, Maxwell said. “You may be 24 years old and still be a traditionalist by temperament. And there are what I call ‘cuspers.’ You may be technically a boomer but identify with gen-Xers. The dates are not set in stone — they are more like guidelines — but each generation’s personality runs deeper than just dates, it’s more than just how old you are,” said Maxwell.

Maxwell prefaced her presentation to the workshop participants, who represented all four of the generations, with a giant caveat: “I’m going to talk to you today in stereotypes. I’m going to make sweeping generalizations about one generation or another — millennials do this, boomers do that. But my main message is not to stereotype, but rather to heighten awareness of the elements of an age-friendly workplace that facilitate effective communication and productivity.”

The two key areas that apply to professionalism in the work environment are respect for generational differences and professional boundaries, she said.

She acknowledged that a 90-minute workshop was insufficient time to break down all the permutations between and among the four groups. But she offered some general strategies, sprinkled with revealing anecdotes, to overcome inter-generational biases.

Drawing on the image of the family dinner as an example, Maxwell said that traditionalists as children would be required to be at the dinner table at a set time, to eat what was served, to ask for permission to leave the table and to respect the authority of their parents, who did most of the talking — and mostly to each other.

Boomers, as kids with their multiple siblings, might have a “kid’s table” and a “grown-up’s table,” and might eat and run, cutting the meal time short.

Generation Xers came home from school, got their own meal and ate it in front of the TV while their single parent was still working.

But millennials are not just at the dinner table, they have become the dominant center of attention and are asked their opinions by their parents, who no longer are talking to each other, Maxwell said.

“They’ll say, ‘Would you like mac and cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich? No, not either? Well okay, sweetie, what do you want me to make for you?’

A baby boomer’s mother, by contrast, might say, “You’ll eat what I made you. I’m not a short-order cook.”

“We need to look at where others are coming from,” Maxwell maintained. “It’s the collective experience that shapes a generation. Before you rush to judgment about a co-worker from another generation, you have to first say to yourself, ‘I realize that all I can change is how I react.’ So, take a step back, look at it objectively, hear the message. It’s a two-way street.”

To support her point, Maxwell recounted the anecdote of a boomer-age manager. A millennial employee who had just quit his job had come into the manager’s office in torn jeans and T-shirt, “put his feet up on her desk and said, ‘Now I’m going to tell you everything that’s wrong with your organization.’

“The manager was so seething mad and distracted by his behavior that she couldn’t even hear a word he said to her.”

In retrospect, the manager realized that she had missed an opportunity to hear from a young man from his perspective. “That might have given her some ideas of how to deal with millennials in the future,” Maxwell pointed out. “If you focus on what you perceive as disrespectful or unprofessional, you miss what might be a constructive message.”

As a second example, she asked, “How many boomers here, who saw a candidate for a job come out of an interview with tattoos and piercings everywhere possible and, without knowing anything else, would say, ‘I hope they don’t hire him in my department’?”

A boomer herself, Maxwell said she had to teach herself not to be judgmental of those from a different generation. “It’s not easy, but we have to do it to make the workplace communicate effectively.”

Traditionalists: “One for all and all for one.”

The generation that lived through the Depression and World War II is not motivated by individualism, Maxwell said. “They say, ‘I learned the hard way and you can, too. There’s a right and there’s a wrong. There are morals and values. There is a place for authority and a reason for authority.’

“Their experience tells them: You can’t have it all. Their attitude is: If you have a secure job, make enough to live on and support a family, have good benefits, what’s happiness have to do with it?”

In addition, traditionalists see the military model of chain of command as appropriate to a workplace, and they’re detail-oriented and thorough, Maxwell said. “They are reliable and work for the sake of doing a good job.”

How those traits manifest themselves at the workplace include (on the plus side) having a calming effect, and bringing a legacy of useful knowledge and experiences that should be respected by younger employees. On the minus side, traditionalists are uncomfortable with conflict, and reluctant to buck the system or introduce new ways of doing things.

“So if a traditionalist is the boss, and the group he or she supervises makes a proposal for a salary increase, even following all the right channels and using legitimate arguments, the boss won’t fight for it,” Maxwell said.

Baby boomers: “The times, they are a changin’.”

Boomers still are by far the largest group in the American workplace, Maxwell said. Post-WWII America was a booming time, “and provided a great opportunity for boomers to set out and change the world, which, in great part, they did,” she said.

Boomers probably had a stay-at-home mom who collaborated with them on homework. They like to be liked and recognized by their co-workers. They have high expectations of themselves. They live to work, rather than work to live. They are defined by their work, and often extend themselves to 60-hour work weeks as a result.

Boomers also are relationship-oriented, Maxwell added. They are able to network. They believe it’s not what you know, but who you know.

“In 1967, Time magazine named baby boomers their ‘Man of the Year,’ as the generation that, eventually, would end racial discrimination, clean up the air and cure the common cold. So there was hope,” Maxwell said.

That hope was deflated somewhat by boomers’ most important common experience, the Vietnam War, she said. “Whether you were drafted and sent to Vietnam or you were at home protesting the war, everyone was involved in the war in one way or another.”

But following the Vietnam War, boomers eventually returned to their optimistic, ambitious origins and “to work, work, work and more work for personal gratification,” Maxwell said.

As co-workers, baby boomers are driven, good at co-worker relationships and willing to go the extra mile.

On the other hand, they are judgmental of those who don’t do the job the way they do it, are sensitive to negative feedback and reluctant to go against peers, Maxwell maintained.

Boomer managers often are practitioners of “doublespeak,” that is, sending out mixed positive and negative messages at the same time, she added. “They’ll say, ‘You’re doing a great job, but you’re late all the time.’ Well, which is it?”

Boomers, who crave positive recognition themselves, are afraid to discipline others for fear of alienating them, so they soften their criticism, which can confuse younger co-workers.

“They also are status-sensitive: ‘You’re my co-worker or you’re my boss, not my friend,’ they believe,” she said.

Generation X: “Just tell me: Is it on the test?”

“Gen-Xers lived through Watergate and the Challenger explosion, and saw their fathers get laid off and lose their pensions,” Maxwell said. “The divorce rate skyrocketed. They were the first generation that more likely had two working parents, and they were the first latchkey kids. They don’t want to be bothered unless they know, ‘What does this have to do with my survival?’”

So the message they got was: Don’t count on it, she said. “They’re very skeptical. They can only count on themselves.”

That philosophy makes them self-reliant, independent, creative and adaptable on the job, she noted. “Gen-Xers work best when they work alone. Do not micro-manage a gen-Xer; they likely will just quit on you. And retention is an enormous issue with that generation, because they need the work environment to be fun. Give them an assignment and leave them alone. They’re also very open to taking on new assignments and challenges.”

Unlike boomers, gen-Xers work to live, she said. “They need the balance of work and life. ‘Why would you ever work on a weekend?’ they ask. ‘My job isn’t as important as that.’”

On the negative side, gen-Xers lack people skills and they need a fun, relaxed, flexible and informal work environment to be efficient, Maxwell said. “They’re also very cynical and unimpressed with authority. If challenged they get defensive. And Xers don’t want to hang out with co-workers after work. They prefer to go home to their families and personal lives.”

Gen-Xers are open to mentoring if it’s sincere. “And they need to be told why a rule is in place,” Maxwell said. “They don’t understand why they need to be here at 8:30 if they’re doing their job and getting you the work on time. That needs to be explained to them. It’s not that they have no work ethic, it’s that it’s a different work ethic.”

Millennials: “S’all good.”

“Why? Because for them, it really is all good,” Maxwell said. “They are children of boomers who were determined that they were going to get child-rearing and parenting right,” which manifests itself in becoming very child-focused and continually engaging the child in choices, she said.

“Millennials have been involved in choices their whole lives, down to which pre-school do they like the best. Their opinion counts. They likely choose the computer that their parents should buy. They decide where the family should go on vacation: They’ve planned it and they’ve researched it. They have tutors, coaches, parents, teachers, all heavily involved in their lives. At age 2, they had planned play groups.

“They don’t just want to go to college, they want to go to the college, because they’ve always been told that they can do it,” Maxwell said.

“They’re very social, they are in constant contact with somebody, which is either called interconnection addiction or, as I like to view it, the longest umbilical cord in the world.”

Boomers, now the helicopter parents who hover over every aspect of their children’s lives, become more like friends and less like authority figures, Maxwell said, and that stifles self-reliance in the workplace.

Maxwell recounted how when she went away to college, her sister dropped her off and waved good-bye. “That was it. Have you seen kids arriving to college now? It’s the kids, their parents, their grandparents, their friends, all involved,” she said. “The parents are not home for 10 minutes before their child is calling looking for her missing jeans. Parents are even becoming a part of the job-hiring process. They come along on job interviews.”

How do millennials’ traits play out at work? “Since they’re friends with their parents, they see themselves as equals in the workplace, even with their supervisors,” Maxwell said.

She recounted the story of a millennial meeting a supervisor who asked where he lived. “When he found out, the supervisor said, ‘Oh, I live just a few blocks from there.’ The response was, ‘Dude, we can ride into work together!’” — much to the horror of the older supervisor.

On the job millennials bring optimism and sociability, and they are intuitively technology-savvy, having never been in a world without computers.

On the other hand, they are not tolerant of those who can’t multi-task. They don’t work well alone. They also may never have been given a negative performance evaluation in their lives, so they don’t take criticism well. They have a need for supervision, and are inexperienced and naive at handling people situations at work, Maxwell said. They may need guidance on appropriate dress, because they have a low concern for appearance and an underdeveloped sense of proper decorum.

“A boomer manager might say: ‘Who asked that kid for an opinion?’ she said. “Well, they’ve always been asked, about everything.”

In conclusion, Maxwell warned not to take the various work behaviors of different generations personally. “I like to draw on a quote by Rick Hicks, from “Boomers, Xers and Other Strangers”: ‘The differences between generations are more than just distinct ways of looking at things or new solutions for problems. They’re gut-level differences in values and involve a person’s beliefs, emotions and preferences.’”

—Peter Hart

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