Understanding the workplace generation gap

Strategy consultant Bruce Msimanga unpacks the values and attitudes of different generations in today's workplaces.

The term generation gap is a term used to describe the different values and attitudes between one generation and another.  This term is typically used to describe the gap between parents and their children.  Since the 1960’s, the term generation gap has also been used to describe the clash between age groups in various settings.  The workplace is such an environment where different generations must intermingle and deal with each other’s way of thinking.

What generations exist in a workplace

Today’s workplace presents many challenges that are based solely on meeting goals, business objectives, and project deadlines.  Threaded throughout the normal business activities are dynamics that could present issues and conflicts if left unchecked. Since many older workers remain on the job longer and younger workers are entering the workplace right out of school, the work environment is fragmented into various generations.  In order to understand this eclectic environment, it is necessary to understand what generations exist or are present in today’s workplace. Also, since humans live on average 77 to 80 years, four potential generations may exist in the workplace today.

The three generations that could be present in the workplace are the following:

  • Baby Boomers
  • Generation X
  • Millennials / Generation Y

Understanding the background, attitudes, and work styles of each generation is essential for a manager or supervisor. If a manager wants to effectively coach and communicate with her employees, then understanding these differences is paramount in creating a harmonious work environment for all employees. In this article I will get into the details of each of only three generations and not all of them. Before I do that, let us briefly look at what defines a generation.  

What defines a generation

A generation is a group of people born during the same period and shares the same attitudes and values.  The period is the factor to dividing the generations into groups.  The four generations mentioned I mentioned earlier have time ranges that define their period.

For example, the Baby Boom Generation represents people born between 1946 and 1961.  Generation X represents people born between 1962 and 1980 and Generation Y represents people born in the 1980s and 1990s, while Generation Z represents those born between 1996 and 2010.

There is a fourth generation, Generation Z, which represents those born between 1996 and 2010, but for the purposes of this article, I will only focus on the aforementioned three. 

In each period there are experiences that shaped the attitudes and values of each generation.  In addition, the interaction between generations is also a factor in shaping the subsequent generation.  For example, Generation X sought to be different than the larger more influential Baby Boomers generation.  This type of thinking affects their behaviors and preferences.

What this means for you workplace

When groups have the same values and attitudes, communication and other dynamics typically go smoother, than when there are multiple groups and each group brings their own style, values, and attitudes. Multiple generations in the workplace present challenges in many areas.  Here are two perspectives that must be managed.

Firstly, the employee-to-employee perspective is critical; it shows how different generations interacting with each other may lead to miscommunication or misunderstanding.  Furthermore, the way each generation handles confrontation may also be a point of friction.  The generation gap between employees could be seen more in the preferred modes of communication, the words, and gestures used.

Secondly, the manager-to-employee perspective is another sensitive area.  Generation gaps in this situation could be difficult if the relationship starts on the wrong foot.  For the manager, knowing that there are differences in the way generations communicate, view authority, life-work balance, and relationships is just the beginning. The manager needs to also plan how to address these issues proactively, avoiding difficult or tense situations.  Having difficult situations at work could lead to poor morale and productivity, which will reflect on the manager’s performance.  

Generation gaps at work means more work is needed to cultivate an environment that respects each generation’s perspective and way of life.  This also means the manager has to be observant and knowledgeable of the various traits associated with each generation.  

Baby Boomers

This generation has members that were born between 1946 and 1964. Baby Boomers were the product of post war efforts to absorb soldiers returning home from battle.  The result was a boom in childbirths, which is where the title Baby Boomer is derived.  This generation is associated with a redefinition of traditional values. Baby Boomers tend to think of themselves as special and they are the hardworking generation. In the United States for example, Baby Boomers grew up in an era of prosperity and growth.  They grew up mostly in suburbs and experienced a similar experience in education and upbringing. Baby Boomers grew up in the year of innocence during the 1950s and seen model lives portrayed on television.  Television was a large component of the Baby Boomers’ upbringing.  As mothers began working outside of the home, Baby Boomers grew up more and more with television.

As the Baby Boomers moved through the 1960s, their generation was becoming more defined.  The 1960s brought about social changes like Civil Rights, a different kind of war in Vietnam, and rebellion against established institutions like the Hippy Revolution.  

The Baby Boomer generation represents a departure from the traditional and movement towards changes in society, beliefs, and attitudes.

Their characters

Baby Boomers are known to be confident and independent.  They were exposed to a changing world where challenging the established culture was normal.  Baby Boomers are willing to confront others and they will challenge the status quo. Most Baby Boomers are well educated and are exposed to more financial resources than the past generation.  Baby boomers are hard -working and they define themselves by their careers and professions.  Baby Boomers are disciplined and they mirror some of their parents’ work ethics. Since Baby Boomers know they make up most of the working population, they tend to have more of their generation connect with work, making it more difficult for non-Baby Boomers to affect the organization.  

On the other hand, Baby Boomers support change and will advocate for it if they see it being a benefit.

Their working style

Baby Boomers are work-centric.  They are hard-working and they are motivated by incentives.  Baby Boomers tend to work long workweeks.  They tend to be workaholics and think that everyone should do the same in order to advance in their careers.

Characteristics: 

  • Baby Boomers are career focused and enjoy achieving at work.  
  • They like doing complicated work that makes a difference.  
  • Baby Boomers are very competitive and they equate their worth by their status and position at work.
  • Baby Boomers are resourceful and look for different ways to win.  
  • Baby Boomers do prefer a hierarchal work structure and may find it difficult to work in a flexible environment.  
  • Finally, Baby Boomers tend to favor face-to-face interaction instead of remote means like emails, text, etc.

Generation X

This segment of the culture was born between 1965 and 1980.  They are the generation right after the decline of the baby boom of the post war era.  Generation Xers lived during a time when the world shifted from manufacturing to servicing. This generation is often seen by Baby Boomers as the rebels

This generation grew up with technology as a part of their lives.  They experienced computers, video games, cell phones, email, etc.  They have seen the evolution of technology and understand its origins. Generation Xers also experienced difficult times in the 1980s and learned to live in tough times.  Finally, Generation Xers were raised in two-income homes or single-parent homes.  These situations forced many Generation Xers to be placed in day care. Their background allowed them to develop new characteristics that went against the Baby Boomers.  

Their characters: Generation Xers are individualistic people and independent, this was possibly effected by the formation of the ANC and the Republic of South Africa in 1961. They are self-sufficient and flexible.  This character trait enables them to change jobs more frequently than the previous generations.  They usually see this as a way of moving up the corporate latter. This generation is more ethnically diverse and is better educated over their previous generation.  More than half of Generation Xers attended college.   Generation Xers also believe in more balance between their work and home life than the previous generation.  They rather focus on family than work and value jobs that allow flexibility in their schedules to meet the demands of their family.

Generation Xers are more willing to try new things because of their technical experience and they welcome new technology into their lives easily and adapt to them quickly.  Generation Xers are also tolerant of other lifestyles and accept this as part of the change in their environment.

Generation X’s perspective allows them to foster a more accepting environment at work.  

Their working style: Generation Xers enjoy freedom at work.  They crave responsibility and politely reject authority and fixed work schedules.  This generation does not do well in a micro-managed environment.  They will thrive in a workplace where management allows them to complete their tasks without too much supervision. Generation Xers will be the first ones to take advantage of technology and incorporate it into their work.  They see technology as a tool and a way to do things more efficiently. Generation Xers will look for other employment opportunities if it promises advancement of their career.  They are less committed to their employers than the Baby Boomers.  On the other hand, Generation Xers adapt well to change in their workplace and are key drivers of change.

Finally, this generation believes in a healthy balance between work and their personal life.  They also like to have fun at work and believes in a work and play hard ideal.  Generation Xers like a dynamic work environment that challenges them yet support their need for fun and balance between work and home life.

Generation Y

Generation Yers or Millenials are those born from the mid to late 1970’s through the 1990’s.  This generation probably makes up the biggest portion of the workforce.  The Generation Y group had technology as a normal part of life and most do not know what it is to be without a computer, cell phone or any other electronic device the older generation had to adapt into their lives. This generation can thrive on electronic communication and prefer that than face-to-face conversation.  Millennials prefer using the Internet as a means of learning and making purchases.  They are exposed to vast amounts of information, music, and media than the older generations. This generation was exposed to more group interactions through playgroups, team sports and other group activities than the previous generation.  This was due in part to their parents’ higher education and success.

Finally, this generation is used to getting what they want when they want it.  The speed of technology and information coupled with rapid delivery systems has made this generation expect things to be done faster and better.

Their charatcers: Generation Y is prone to communicating via electronic devices and is capable of multi-tasking while carrying a text messaging conversation.  This generation relies on technology to do their jobs and expect to have the resources available when they are at work. Generation Y is family-centric and value family over work.  This generation looks for flexible schedules at work and a balance between work and life.  They are willing to take less pay for this benefit.  

This generation is achievement-oriented and is confident.  Generation Y will question authority without fear and challenge ideas and motives.  Generation Y enjoys meaningful work and are ready to keep on learning new ideas and things.

Generation Y works well in a team environment, embracing challenges together in the spirit of ubuntu. They are possibly influenced by the end of apartheid in 1994 and social networking and sharing. They seek positive reinforcement from others and believe no one should be left behind.  They rather slow the process down in order to give a teammate the opportunity to catch up.  

Finally, the Generation Y group appreciates feedback and being kept updated on the latest developments.  They do require periodic recognition and praise for their work.  

Their working style: Generation Y’s working style is vastly different from those of the previous generation.  This generation is motivated by benefits that give them the ability to have flexible schedules.  They are less motivated monetarily.   They are not happy with long working hours and this may send the message that they do not care about work or are lacking discipline.  Family is first for Generation Y and they will push back on work that crosses this boundary. This generation does expect a lot from their employer in terms of new challenges and the opportunity to achieve things.  Generation Y does see promotions and climbing the corporate ladder as a way to demonstrate their worth.

Generation Y is loyal to their employer and seeks to be included in important activities at work.  They will call attention to themselves by suggesting bold ideas and challenging the status quo.  However, they do become concerned with what others think about them and need affirmation every so often.  

Since some of this generation is relatively young in the workplace, there can be a need for mentoring.  They see this as normal and expect it from their leaders.  The like guidance and development when it comes to their careers.