Generation Management

Generation Management

Cross-generational harmony in workplace achievable with a little understanding of differences
Jan 01, 2004

We often hear Baby Boomer veterinarians grumble in their microbrews about the independent attitudes of the "thirtysomething" colleagues and even younger employees.

Gen Xers are faulted for laid-back work habits, lack of motivation and absence of commitment. They seem to have no respect for traditional values or organizational culture.

There is some truth to this.

Younger workers know there's a coming labor shortage and they're not about to be exploited - work longer hours, be loyal as dogs - as the Boomers had to in the bad old days.

Two-way street This feeling of disconnection is a two-way street: Younger employees have different priorities in their lives than their older co-workers. They don't understand the competitiveness and intensity of the Boomers at the expense of - what the Gen Xers consider - a more balanced lifestyle. These opposing viewpoints often lead to friction on the job.

Surprisingly, the different generations actually have some things in common. In the interest of establishing a greater rapport between the age groups, let's dispel some myths. Here are some generalizations that may not withstand close scrutiny - and some that will.

Chart 1.
1. Hard work is a function of age. Are all Gen Xers slackers and all Boomers (and pre-Boomers) intrinsically worker bees? Of course not. Every Boomer and pre-Boomer veterinarian isn't a workaholic, including many who claim they are. Conversely, younger workers will work intensely and enthusiastically if they're emotionally engaged in the job. Moreover, many Gen Xers have an eye toward self-employment. When they eventually strike out on their own, they will work non-stop and recruit family members into the business.

What a manager perceives as the lack of ambition or a poor work ethic may be caused by subordinates' boredom: Younger workers demand high content and meaning in their work. It must make a visible difference to the organization - right now. Gen Xers do not subscribe to the idea of "paying your dues." Having their ideas ignored or told to wait until they've learned more about the organizational culture doesn't make sense to them. If a job lacks content or the break-in period seems to go on interminably before real challenges emerge, they are gone and quick to say why.

No incentive to stay In this preoccupation with job satisfaction, many Boomers are influenced by younger colleagues. Sometime between 1990 and 1995 an idea grabbed the collective worker consciousness: Since job security doesn't exist, it makes no sense to remain in an unhappy situation - unless you are strapped for cash. Even in this sluggish job market, Boomers will follow the lead of their younger colleagues: hunt for jobs surreptitiously and leave without explanation for a better - or more interesting - opportunity. The difference is this: A Gen Xer will decide in a week that a job isn't a good fit; a Boomer will suffer longer before facing this truth and acting on it. Our conclusion: Hard work is a function of interest, not age.

2. Professional attitudes are different. The most rigid generational differences cluster around expectations of the role that work plays in life.

Young workers see what they do for a living as part of their identity - and often not the most important part - whereas most Boomers self-identify by their jobs. A younger person will say, "I'm a veterinarian (or a vet technician), yes, but I also cook a mean risotto, wield a wicked backhand, and I'm a Cub Scout leader."

Boomers find this attitude unprofessional because, for most of them, their identification with the job is total.

Table 1: Cross-generational attitudes toward office politics
Gaining ground One result of their collective desire for a more well-rounded persona is that Gen Xers put a greater emphasis on lifestyle choices. They try harder to make more time for family and leisure. This philosophy, however, is slowly gaining ground across the age spectrum. Some Boomers are questioning their commitments as they realize their younger co-workers think devotion and loyalty are not necessarily admirable, nor particularly useful. Until the economy faltered, Boomers watched Gen Xers dictate the terms of their lifestyles without negative influences on job or social position.

Today, even the most dedicated Boomer may rethink his frenzied schedule and slack off, especially if his wife returns to the workplace. Not surprisingly, two incomes can help shift priorities. This again reflects the impact of the under-35 crowd - a "trickle up" effect.