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July 10, 2014

Generational divide: Respect & flexibility are key


To each generation, the next one seems less hard-working and more self-centered — every one of them a “Me generation” — while those older still seem wiser, when they aren’t being stereotyped as rigid or ready to retire.

Those are just some of the images conjured by varying age groups as, for the first time, five generations work together at Pitt. Warren McCoy, diversity specialist in the Office of Affirmative Action, Diversity and Inclusion, took staff members attending his “Please Respect My Generation” workshop last month through their impressions of each generation before brainstorming ways the generations can communicate better.

The five generations in today’s workplace are Traditionals (born between 1930 and 1945), Baby Boomers (1946-64), Generation X (1965-76), Millennials (1977-90) and Generation 9/11 (1991-present).

Each group was divided, and shaped, by major events: The Traditionals grew up with the Depression and World War II, giving birth to the Baby Boomers, who had unprecedented access to education and steady careers. Generation X reacted to such careerism, while the Millennials were the first to grow up with the technological boom, experienced exponentially by Generation 9/11 — which, as their name implies, also have known only the War on Terror and the uncertainty it has added to the national mood.

While the youngest generation is the one most concerned with diversity in the workplace and the rest of life, none of the generations may realize that intergenerational relations is a diversity concern.

Generational generalizations

workersMcCoy asked attendees to compile the public image of each generation; they saw Traditionals in the best light. They were tagged as wise, reliable, no nonsense, even unapologetic individuals who were respected as teachers and leaders for playing by the rules and possessing a good work ethic. As McCoy pointed out, no generational image fits everyone in that age group, nor is positive stereotyping any better than the negative variety. Workshop participants called Traditionals knowledgeable, “because we didn’t want to say, ‘Know it all,’” one staff member in attendance volunteered. The group was also labeled as thrifty and socially conservative — traits not always seen as assets today.

The double-edged sword of stereotypes could be seen most clearly in the public image of the Baby Boomers: They’re all supposedly hard working and loyal to both workplace and boss but put work over family. They hold traditional values and respect the hierarchy at work, but that makes them resistant to change and slow to adopt new technology. They believe hard work and long hours will lead to promotion, but that this is the only way to behave, and are too often paternalistic and tolerant of discrimination.

Generation X’s image is better, combining an anti-authoritarian streak with a good work ethic; but they still are old-school, having trouble adapting to high tech and abandoning paper, for instance. They take risks but remain fiscally responsible, and work well when left alone to reach a clear goal.

Millennials are the first tech-savvy generation but feel too pressured to succeed in the workplace. College attendance now is expected, but its results are no longer clear, since the corporate ladder is more like a zigzagging staircase among many jobs and corporations. They are much more relaxed than previous generations about workplace attendance and work schedules, and are seen as simultaneously lazy and innovative. Are they multitasking like mad or merely distracted? They certainly are more forgiving of workplace mistakes, unorthodox career paths and a better work/life balance. Being geeky has become trendy, thanks to this generation.

Generation 9/11, just now entering the workplace, were the least understood by staffers at the workshops, which included about 40 percent Millennials, an equal proportion of Gen Xers and almost 20 percent Baby Boomers but no one representing either the oldest or youngest generations.

“I don’t think they understand how their actions can impact their daily lives, but they understand how they can impact the world,” said one staffer at the workshop.

“They don’t like work,” volunteered another. A third simply called the generation “scary.”

About the best that could be said for them, the group concluded, was that they are ultra-computer-savvy and diversity-conscious, getting tasks done efficiently once committed, but at the same time bad at face-to-face communication and still expecting to be spoonfed, with a sense of entitlement.

“Usually groups that aren’t represented are beat up,” said McCoy, “and we’re beating them up pretty good.”

Indeed, those 25 or younger were spoken of as if they inhabited a land whose borders were closed to the wider world, and who spoke an incomprehensible language.

“If you learn how to talk to them, they’re willing to learn,” said another workshop attendee. “It’s all in the wording and approach. …”

Workplace encounters

In fact, approaching each generation with respect and learning how to speak to them seems to be the key to all such relations. McCoy offered several workplace scenarios for those in attendance to imagine experiencing as different generations. In one, a Millennial asks her Baby Boomer boss for a promotion; the Millennial feels her master’s degree qualifies her for the post, yet the boss believes the Millennial hasn’t worked the long, late hours that a Baby Boomer in her position might have logged. Staffers in attendance imagined the dialogue between the pair: “You have the book knowledge, but you don’t have the experience of an older worker,” the Boomer might say. “Just because you stay late, doesn’t mean you’re more efficient,” the Millennial might counter. “I leave at 5 but get more work done.”

“As a Millennial,” McCoy said, “you’re probably thinking, ‘What’s the job requirement? If I have the job requirements, what’s the problem?’”

“I think Baby Boomers probably evaluate work being done by the hour,” said a Millennial in attendance, “whereas younger generations evaluate it by the work getting done.”

Other scenarios highlighted how the generations might have differing reactions that each would think appropriate. When hearing a slur in the break room, for instance, younger generations might confront the speaker on the spot, while older generations would report the incident to a supervisor. A Gen X manager who won’t institute new work methods suggested by a Millennial may see the Millennial complying publicly but privately changing his methods anyway.

Some of McCoy’s hypothetical workplace encounters rang too true for workshop participants. In one, a Gen 9/11 worker must deal with a disdainful member of the public, who says: “Can I see someone who is older than 12 and might know what they’re doing?” A young female staffer volunteered that she sometimes hears similar sentiments from fellow Pitt employees: “I thought you were going to be a 60-year-old. You did everything so efficiently, and your voice… .”

Staffers suggested getting the manager to explain the value of younger employees, or addressing it on the spot: “If you can help them while taking the opportunity to make their comment seem stupid …,” said one staffer.

At the other end of the generational spectrum, McCoy asked what should be done if a Traditional hears from a younger colleague: “Shouldn’t you be retiring now, Pops?”

One attendee said such an encounter would never happen in her office: “I call the Traditional in my department the department Yoda. She’s been here forever and she knows everything.” Other attendees observed that Gen 9/11 employees seem to respect the oldest generation the most, and wondered whether the tenure system at universities like Pitt may help breed greater respect for the oldest employees.

In the end, McCoy suggested that employees of all generations needed to respect each other, avoid stereotypes, remain flexible when dealing with all others and “try to learn from each other what each generation has to offer.”

—Marty Levine