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The Truth about Generational Differences—and How to Address Them the SMaRT Way

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Generational Differences and How to Address Them


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Discovering the Facts about Generational Differences in the Workplace

Jennifer J. Deal, a researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership who studied 3,000 corporate leaders and more than 5,000 employees, found that generational differences did not rule the workplace. Instead, any differences in attitude pointed directly back to differences in organizational roles and power. Where she did find generational differences, she was sometimes surprised by the results. She discovered that:

  • Employees in the 26 to 39 age group that employees should follow their manager’s orders without question; most older employees disagree.
  • Any tendency to change jobs is not a matter of generational loyalty but a matter of where people are in their careers—sometimes the only way for any employee to rise in a career or learn new skills is to change jobs.
  • Rewards don’t make people stay at a job, although the higher level one attains in an organization, the more financial rewards are appreciated. The real motivator for every generation seems to be interesting work.
  • The younger employees are, the more they believe organizations should be concerned with work/life balance—and the more they may need a better balance to deal with family obligations.

In interviews, Deal has reiterated her believe that generational differences are not the real problem: instead, “Most intergenerational conflicts are fundamentally about power or clout. A young person who wants more clout wants to be noticed. They have new ideas that aren’t being listened to. An older person wants their experience to be recognized and appreciated. Everyone wants to be heard and respected.”

Acknowledging the Changes in Work across Generations

Back in the 1950s, most people worked in farming or industry. The era into which Boomers were born featured small, local shops; the rise of television; and the heyday of manufacturing. Women and minorities worked, but the range of positions open to them was narrower. For an adult generation that had just fought World War II, depression and suicide were shameful; work/life balance was less important than providing for the nuclear family; and being fired (or “laid off”) was considered a stain on your career.

Since then, work has changed dramatically, moving from physical labor to intellectual labor, and society as a whole has been adjusting to a more diverse population that lives and works longer and has smaller families in more complex living arrangements. Computers, mobile devices, and robotics have entered transformed nearly everyone’s attitudes and access to information, privacy concerns, and remote work.

No company can return to the 1950s, especially to a fantasy of the 1950s as a decade of absolute loyalty, joyfulness in working 50- and 60-hour weeks at repetitive jobs, and employees who thought, acted, and looked exactly the same. Society has changed and work has changed with it.

TIP: The workplace relies more and more on written communications, whether text, chat, or email; the ability to communicate in writing is more relevant than ever across generations.

Busting the Myths of Generational Differences

In reality, almost all generational differences at work are actually rooted in workplace conflict and discrimination. The attitude that “all [whatever] generation are like that” is discriminatory and just as detrimental to the workplace as any other form of discrimination.

The myths attributed to generational differences include:

  • Myth: older employees have paternalistic attitudes. Whether the attitude is perceived or real, paternalism is defined by any individual’s desire to control or restrict another “in their best interest”—in fact, younger people can act paternalistically to older people (consider children deciding whether their parents are competent to live alone). Research has shown that paternalism in the workplace affects and is affected by the overall level of mutual respect and civility.
  • Myth: younger employees have bad work habits. Conventional wisdom states that younger employees spend too much time on electronic devices and socializing. A 2019 US Bureau of Labor Statistics survey showed that younger employees put in the same amount of time at work as older employees and the difference in average time spent socializing is minute: 46 minutes for those under 37 years of age and 36 minutes for those 37 and older—and use of the computer for relaxation is the identical for both groups, although the younger group plays more video games.
  • Myth: only younger employees want education. The same Bureau of Labor Statistics survey discovered that the time spent on education dropped precipitously after the age of 24, when enrollment in college was likely to end. Education was no more or less desirable to a 30-year-old or a 60-year-old; opportunity and focus simply changed. While formal education fell off, every age wanted to learn at work.
  • Myth: older employees get sick more often. While older adults may have more chronic illnesses, the younger employees actually take more time off and have more stress. However, sick time is often taken, not for the employee, but to take care of children or family; as a result, younger employees are also more likely to work sick. Indeed, workplace discrimination may take the form of assuming that an older employee without children is supposed to put in more hours than and cover more often for a younger employee with a family.

Sidebar: If possible, frame responses to generational complaints in terms of team and company standards of productivity and mutual respect. For example, someone says of another generation, “I never get their full attention, they’re always on their cell phone”:  multi-tasking has been proven to be inefficient and many companies ban cell phones during meetings. Again, someone says of another generation, “My texts go unanswered for hours and I never know what they are thinking”: set a policy that everyone has a full workday to respond to non-emergency messages, allowing people to respond at one or two given times to all messages received that day, rather than continuously interrupting their work.

Dealing with “Generational Differences”

SMaRT strategies for dealing with generational conflict refocus the problem where it belongs: on the need for mutual respect and active listening. By removing the stereotypes of generational differences, leaders are able to take actions that fit, not the generation, but the task at hand, the team dynamics, and the underlying problem.

For example:

  • Rally the team around a common purpose that relates to the customer, rather than team. What is the team delivering to the internal or external customer that everyone can contribute to?
  • Be careful when talking about “generational differences” and never use them as an excuse for bad behavior. If, for example, someone accuses another person of acting paternalistic or has become impatient with someone’s technical skills, focus on finding a mutual solution to the problem, just as you would in handling any difficult conversation.
  • Find flexible solutions and underscore the benefit to everyone. Family time off may seem like it favors younger employees with children, but what about those older employees who are dealing with a sick spouse or aged parent?
  • Match the solution to the problem, not the age of the problem solver. The younger generation may prefer texting and it may be faster in many situations; but sometimes a video conference or face-to-face communication suits the problem better.
  • Provide training. If you find that new processes or technology is confusing employees, the principles of successful change management require that you provide training and resources to upgrade skills—rather than replacing an entire generation (and knowledge pool) in your workplace.
  • Provide support. If “generational differences” are threatening to overwhelm your company, you may need professional support. The stress of age discrimination are real, and lead to anger and burnout. Age discrimination occurs across generations; no one is immune and everyone on your team needs to be part of the solution.

TIP: Why people from different generations work together, they often overcome their prejudices, finding common ground in their desire for a stable, friendly, supportive workplace where they can use, share, and grow their individual skills.

Key Takeaways

Generational differences have been blown out of proportion as the cause of and excuse for conflict in the workplace. A supportive leader checks in with every member of the team on their individual challenges and motivators in the workplace and builds a team that is inclusive, participative, and respectful, across generations.

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