Solve Generational Conflict
in the Workplace
By Lauren Stiller Rikleen
overhearing a conversation at the workplace coffee machine between
two middle-aged Baby Boomers that sounds something like this: “I
don’t know what to do about my son any more,” confides the first
Baby Boomer to his colleague. “He is so confident, sociable and
optimistic. Every time he hears an inspiring speaker, he wants to
go out and work on a civic project. Then, when he’s home, he’s
always looking for praise and encouragement for his
accomplishments.” His voice trails off with a tone of frustration.
colleague nods with understanding. “I know exactly what you mean.
My daughter is very similar. And she is always plugged in. She
doesn’t even talk to her friends directly, everything is done by
text and instant messaging. Plus, her expectations at work are so
unrealistic. She expects to be trained in all aspects of her
position and given constant feedback regarding how she did in her
assignments. I’m so afraid she will not succeed in the workplace.”
colleague who had overheard their discussion soon joined the two in
their conversation. He immediately chimed in with a litany of
complaints about his newest round of hires that he had personally
recruited from the nation’s top graduate schools.
pulling what little hair I have left out of my head,” he lamented.
“If I am interrupted one more time by one of these kids asking me
for clarification on the assignment I gave, I don’t know what I’ll
do. Last week, someone with two Harvard degrees actually came in to
ask me to read a preliminary draft to make sure he was on the right
track. And yesterday, another one with a fancy Ivy League
background told me he was unavailable to work on a project this
Suddenly, he glanced at the clock. “Well, I guess we’d better head
home. It’s almost midnight.” With that the three departed the
conversation and left the office.
Increasingly, Baby Boomers are expressing a frustration that signals
growing generational conflict in the workplace. The complaints have
a decidedly early 1960s ring to them, sounding like Paul Lynde, the
beleaguered father in “Bye Bye Birdie” whose song became a
generational anthem, asking, “What’s the Matter with Kids Today”?
Ironically, Paul Lynde was bemoaning the generation that is now
leading America’s businesses and running the Government.
anything really the matter with kids today? Or is it their
parents? Young people now entering the workforce have been tagged
with a multiplicity of nicknames: ‘Gen Y,’ ‘Echo Boomers,’ and
‘Millennials,’ to name a few. Born approximately between 1978 and
the early 1990s, the Millennials are the most diverse generation in
US history and the largest since the infamous Baby Boomers exploded
into America’s conscientiousness. Millennials overshadow their
immediate predecessors, Gen X, because there are nearly three times
as many members of the millennial generation. They also, in
general, are born of working parents and have more disposable income
than previous generations.
their rebellious Boomer parents, Millennials tend to have stronger
relationships with their parents through their teenage years. They
are also used to being regularly praised and rewarded for their
efforts at school and at play. They have been called the “Everybody
Gets a Trophy” generation because of their parents’ insistence that
their early sports experiences be collaborative and positive
opportunities. From these early days of shared rewards, constant
media stimulation, and technological savvy, they became a generation
accustomed to quick answers, a constant flow of information and new
ideas, and immediate gratification.
are the characteristics that the Millennials bring into a workplace
dominated by the Baby Boomer generation, whose own youthful
experiences were markedly different. Teen-age Boomers demanded
change through rebellion and revolutionary tactics. Their early
years were permeated by street protests and standing up against an
unpopular war and a military draft which threatened all income
levels. Their friends were killed, their heroes were assassinated,
the political establishment seemed immune to the changing world, and
generational conflict was rampant.
these two sizeable demographic groups to co-exist in the workplace,
they must learn to understand how their formative cultural
experiences guide their behavior and then find the common ground for
a successful working relationship. In reality, these are two
generations that should have the capacity to work extraordinarily
well together. They are both smart, work at a fast pace, and can
exhibit great passion about what they do. Their different styles
and expectations are an outgrowth of their life experiences, and the
culture in which they were raised.
then, can the Boomers and their ‘Echo-Boomers’ communicate better in
the workplace? First and foremost, Baby Boomers need to stop
complaining that the millennial generation is lazy and unwilling to
work hard. In fact, the Millennials enter the workplace
accomplished and with high expectations.
Millennial workers, however, reject the notion of “face time” as a
means of success, and expect clear assignments, regular feedback,
and reward for their efforts. They will not stay for long if they
do not understand the big picture and the opportunities that lie
understanding these differences, Boomers can stop focusing on the
question in Paul Lynde’s lyrics: “Why can’t they be like we were –
perfect in every way.” Rather, Boomers can partner with the
Millennials to create a far more humane work environment.
Baby Boomers should recognize that the expectations of the
Millennials actually translate into the fundamentals of a better
workplace. An organization that carefully trains all of its
employees, sets clear goals and expectations, and provides regular
feedback to ensure that individuals learn with each assignment is a
model for success. Even more, if the workplace can recognize the
strains on two-career parents by providing a flexible work
environment, then it is going to be a magnet for the best and the
brightest of the millennial generation.
reality is Boomers have much to learn from their younger workers. A
generation whose defining characteristics include a willingness to
collaborate and a focus on teamwork are qualities to be treasured.
the matter with kids today? To paraphrase a famous line from a
member of the generation which preceded the Baby Boomers: “Frankly,
my dear, nothing.”
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