Uncovering the Generation Gap in the Workplace

Published in City Life Magazine June/July 2007

Next time you attend your weekly staff meeting, take a better look around the boardroom- you may be surprised with who you’re sipping coffee with.

Sure you think you know everyone; there’s Mark from accounting that has been there for over 35 years, the marketing director Julie who’s always furiously keying into her Blackberry, and that Ivy League graduate Ryan hired last winter that thinks he has all the answers to company dilemmas.

It may not be evident at first glance but you, like countless professionals, work with a team of individuals that span over four generations and nearly eighty birth years.

The Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y are working side by side in shops, labs, factories, and government offices all across Canada, and there is no surprise that the potential for misunderstandings and argument between those distinct generations has increased.

“Differences in needs, values, and priorities often result in clashes between generations due to a lack of insight into the ways each group functions,” explains Neha Kotak, talent development manager at Courtyard Group. “As a result, it becomes difficult to leverage differences and change our perceptions of each other.”

Monster.ca has reported that social scientists are pointing to generational differences as strong factors determining interactions in the workplace. To diffuse any tensions that could take away from the quality of production, it has become critical for employers and employees alike to have a strong understanding and appreciation of one another through communication and strategy.

The way to begin this is by identifying the four generations and their unique traits.

Veterans: Born 1922-1943

There is a reason why people like Mark from accounting stay with a company for so many years, and it does involve their age. Co-Author of Generations at Work, and renowned public speaker Claire Raines says, “People from different generations have subtly different work styles and work ethics. When older and younger employees work together, they notice these subtly differences and often judge them as right or wrong instead of just different.”

Raines helps professionals see how the work perspective of a 35-year-old can differ from someone who is 24 or even 54. Her book discusses each generation beginning with the Veterans. Co-workers falling under this generation group are dutiful and loyal to the company, and dedicate a lot of hard work and time into their tasks without causing much stir or protest around the office. They are more likely o live out their entire career with one company, rather than transferring to various jobs as many younger generation do today.

When working with individuals in this group, it is important to give them your respect and let then know their experience and dedication is valued.

Baby Boomers: Born 1943-1960

As the largest group of individuals in our workforce, the Baby Boomers hold many positions of power. These are the CEOs, managers and leaders of almost every industry you can work in. known to be the generation of workaholics, they are strong believers in teamwork, work ethic, and commitment. As Rains points out, “people from older generations rely on their own knowledge and experience, while members of younger generations ten to rely on technology for information.”

This mostly has to do with the Baby Boomer skepticism towards the benefits of new technologies. This group prefers to communicate in person rather than through e-mail or telephone, so making that extra effort to give them your full attention can help build efficiency in the work environment.

Generation X: 1960-1980

Once 5 p.m. hits, don’t expect many Gen X employees to still be in their seats, hard at work with the Baby Boomers. This generation is hardworking and independent, but prefers free agency to commitment and loyalty-especially to a company.

They are more technologically savvy then their senior co-workers and don’t have a problem with changing jobs numerous times if it will help them advance professionally. To successfully interact with this group, it is important to give them direction that leaves room for their own interpretations and strategies. This will help them to believe in the vision of the tasks and to complete their assignments with content.

According to Rains, learning how to interact with various generations “will make business professionals more productive and help them to have more fun together on the job.”

Generation Y: 1981-1999

As the offspring of the Baby Boomers, these young entrants to the workforce are beginning to fill the rather large shoes left by their parents. Cell phones, laptops, and MP3 players seem like extensions of their bodies, as they grew up in the digital age.

Gen Y employees have great confidence and social skills, and love to enjoy all the comforts of the good life. These individuals are very high-maintenance workers, but definitely worth the effort.

“Younger employees are very well-educated and experienced through co-op and other education programs,” says Morris DiStefano, IT Director at Schenker of Canada Ltd. “They are eager and energetic, but sometimes lack the initiative and structure needed in their work. They don’t always see urgency, and can be impatient to gain more responsibility and rank within the company.”

To enhance work relationships, employers should be sure to include them in as much teamwork and decisions making as possible, and remember to acknowledge accomplishments with positive feedback and more challenging tasks.

No matter what generation group you may belong to, you can always benefit from the perspectives of your counterparts, young and old. Mark from accounting can help you gain better insight on the history of the company, Julie can teach you a thing or two about e-mail efficiency and Ryan may have some great ideas for the next big project.

Kotak reminds us that, “communications is the key to success when working together, when organizations focus on creating tools to foster diversity and respect, it will help everyone work effectively.”

With this great advice, each generation can do their part to increase support for a more pleasant and functional workplace from 9- 5p.m.

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