Nov 20, 2012
Emily McMackin
Emily McMackin
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Generation Gaps in the Workplace: Bridging the Divides

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From Traditionalists to Millennials, today’s workforce consists of multiple generations whose different political, economic and cultural backgrounds shape their actions, interactions and approach to business. While this generational diversity can be an asset for companies, it can also cause tension and determine how well employers recruit and retain employees.

Fortune 500 companies are pumping millions of dollars into programs designed to reduce and prevent generational discord among and within their teams, said Peter Tokar, economic development manager for the town of Davie, Fla. Tokar and his son, Pete, discussed how to bridge divides in today’s multi-generational workforce at the recent International Economic Development Council conference.

“Four generations dominate the workforce — and each has their own buttons and values, so it’s important to understand who you’re talking to,” Tokar said. Snapshots of the most common three include:

Traditionalists (born 1900-1945): Employees of this generation have been in the workplace the longest, so they tend to be the most conservative. Though most Traditionalists have reached retirement age, the recession forced many of them to postpone their plans and stay in the workforce longer to rebuild the savings they lost during the economic crisis. A product of the Depression era, they view work as survival and are known for their loyalty, dependability and respect for authority. They place a high premium on following the rules and chain of command — and share a deep “mistrust of those who use or abuse the system,” Tokar said.

Babv Boomers (born 1946-1964): Raised in post-World War II during an era of national prestige and prosperity, this generation of workers launched the anti-establishment movements of the ’60s and ’70s, and were the first to challenge the status quo, buck authority and push “outside the box.” Due to their sheer number (for example, in the next 20 years, 10,000 Boomers are expected to retire each year), they are competitive and ambitious. “They all but invented the 60-hour workweek,” Tokar said. They equate work with fulfillment and accomplishment — and their sense of “who they are is deeply connected to career achievement,” he added. Boomers are a task- and structure-oriented group who like paper, presentations and meetings, and are slightly “technophobic,” Tokar said.

Generation X (born 1965-1980): Shaped by the post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam era in which they grew up — a time of national discord, political intrigue, cultural and economic instability — Gen Xers are known for their skepticism toward authority and extreme self-reliance. Many of them witnessed their parents losing their corporate jobs, so they are wary of staying at one company for too long and place less of a priority on work. They prize flexibility and creative freedom, and “aren’t afraid to look for a new job, especially in a work environment where they feel stifled,” Pete Tokar said. Raised in an era of rapid technological advances, they are entrepreneurial by nature and multitask well.

Bridging the Generational Gaps
So how can Traditionalists keep from clashing with Baby Boomers? How can Boomers relate to Gen Xers? Is it possible for Traditionalists and Gen Xers to get along? Bridging generational divides starts with being “aware of the differences,” and then “managing them effectively,” said Peter Tokar.

Showing respect, for example, is very important to Boomers, who prefer face to face conversations where they have the full attention of the person they’re speaking with. When working with Boomers, Tokar advises younger employees to watch their body language (e.g. lean forward, make eye contact) and learn the corporate history. Before questioning them on the processes and structure within a company, “ask how it evolved,” Tokar recommended.

Likewise, Gen Xers “want to go to work, do a good job and move on,” so they appreciate employers or superiors who don’t “mismanage their time,” especially with endless meetings, Pete Tokar said. Communicate via email as much as possible to allow them to multitask, get to the point and don’t stifle their creative freedom by micromanaging them, Tokar advised. They may not tackle a project “how you would do it, but they will get it done,” he said.

Traditionalist or Boomer employers who want to keep younger workers should focus on fostering a secure work environment, offering rewards that matter — such as flexible schedules or a day off for a job well done — and providing “specific, constant, consistent feedback,” Tokar said.

The best mediators for generational conflict within a company are “cuspers,” or employees born five to seven years within each generation listed above. “Cuspers are good conflict resolution people because they share values from both generations and can see both perspectives,” said Peter Tokar.

How has your company adjusted to the multi-generational workforce? Please share your thoughts and success stories below — and don’t miss next week’s blog for more on the fourth and up-and-coming generation of workers, the Millennials.

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