That I am writing this article tends to prove the thesis of this article—different generations have different goals and priorities regarding career, life, and workplace.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I border Generation X and Y, and identify with characteristics of both groups.  In line with Generation X-ers, I believe there is more to life than one’s job or career, and I make time to write articles because it is fulfilling in a way that my career as a litigation attorney is not. This article is intended to provide the briefest of primers on how generational differences can play out in the workplace to create conflict.

Four Generations to Consider

There are presently four generations with members in the work force.  Here we set forth some generational characteristics regarding the workplace, drawing heavily from Dogan Gursoy et al., Generational Difference: An Examination of Work Values and Generational Gaps in the Hospitality Workforce, 27 Int’l J. Hosp. Mngmt. 448 (2008) and Greg Hammill, Mixing and Managing Four Generations of Employees, FDU Mag. Vol. 12 (Winter/Spring 2005):

Veterans (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Generation Y (1981-2000)

Communication Styles

  • Veterans / Formal – Memo
  • Boomers / Direct and in person – often hate email
  • Gen X / Immediate – not afraid of emails
  • Gen Y / Fast, informal and frequent – “how r u” is acceptable

Values

  • Veterans / Separate work & personal life
  • Boomers / Live to work - workaholics
  • Gen X / Balance of work and life
  • Gen Y / Work to live – place premium on family/friends

Leadership Styles

  • Veterans / Direct and authoritative
  • Boomers / Collegial
  • Gen X / Everyone is equal
  • Gen Y / Collaborative

Rules

  • Veterans / Rules are the law
  • Boomers / Respect for rules
  • Gen X / Skeptical of rules – can do it better myself
  • Gen Y / Rules are to be bent – need flexibility

Motivational Phrases

  • Veterans / “We appreciate your loyalty”
  • Boomers / "Your input is valuable”
  • Gen X / "Your way is as good or better than any other”
  • Gen Y / “We appreciate your hard work”

Rewarded By

  • Veterans / Satisfaction in a job well done
  • Boomers / Money and title
  • Gen X / Freedom to do as seen best
  • Gen Y / Receiving personal attention and direction

As apparent from the differences listed, each generation differs from every other generation in many respects.  These differences have the potential to create conflict.  For example, a Veteran boss may be driven crazy by the constant barrage of emails he receives from a Gen X-er or Y-er, while the sender thinks nothing of copying the Veteran supervisor on every mundane email.  If not approached delicately, the X-er or Y-er will simply write off the Veteran’s complaints as “outdated,” further distancing these individuals.

On the other hand, a more volatile situation may arise where an X-er or Y-er becomes the manager of a Boomer or Veteran.  This is especially likely to occur now because of Generation Y’s stronger grasp of technology.  Not only will the Boomer or Veteran feel inferior to someone who could be their grandchild, but the Veteran or Boomer is also likely to see the youngster-manager as less capable because of generational differences.  The Boomer that receives an email from the youngster-manager stating: “pls send ur avlblty 4 a mtg this pm asap” will be unimpressed, insulted, and may not even understand the “encoded” message.

Fastest Bridge to Generational Gaps = Understanding and Flexibility

In the interest of brevity, perhaps the single-most valuable consideration to bridge the generation gap, regardless of which generations it falls between, is to “be flexible.”  This is especially applicable to the younger generations in approaching their supervisors. Understand that while the bosses’ way is not the only way, it is their way and their perception of you and your work product will be directly influenced by your approach to them.  If you fight tooth and nail on generational issues, and insist on sending colloquial emails to your Veteran boss, the whole relationship may be poisoned, which will effect their impression of your work product, raises or praise, and their willingness to be flexible with you.  Notably, these are all desirable to X-ers and Y-ers. 

These considerations apply to supervisors as well.  Considering each employee’s generation (in addition to background and personality) will enable you to figure out what motivates them to do their best work, which is good for them and good for the company.

by Jasper Ozbirn

Jasper L. Ozbirn received a LL.M. in Dispute Resolution with an Emphasis in Mediation from the Straus Institute, Pepperdine University School of Law in May of 2011. He is presently an associate attorney with Citron & Citron in Santa Monica, California.