Generational Differences in the Workplace

Generational differences in the workplace can present unique challenges for both employers and employees.  Our nation’s workforce is currently made up of three main generations, commonly referred to as follows: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials (also known as Generation Y).

Conflict is inevitable as each generation has its own set of work ethics, values, and behaviors. Each generation’s approach to work and interpersonal relationships is different from the other and each likely believes their way is better than the other.

These generational differences are commonly at the root of workplace conflict. This can cause division within your workforce, affect recruitment of new employees, fracture teamwork, diminish motivation and productivity, and threaten your ability to more effectively manage your workforce.

While a multi-generational workplace may face its own types of interpersonal conflicts due to the generational divide, conflict management can help your organization achieve the cohesive resolutions you desire for your organization. The key is to not dwell on the negatives, but rather to focus on the positive impacts that each generation can contribute to your organization.

Generations in the Workplace

As the leader, you can have a large impact on how well your staff thrives in the workplace. You probably have more influence than anyone else to encourage each generation of workers to find common ground.

You can also help them to learn to appreciate their differences. Encourage them to mentor one another on aspects which separate them but ultimately can be used to bridge the generation gaps between them.

Before you can do that, however, it pays to understand each generation better and who comprises your workforce.

According to Pew Research, Millennials and Gen Xers account for the largest portion of the U.S. workforce (35% and 33% respectively), while Baby Boomers currently make up 25% of the workforce.

Let’s discuss the characteristics of each.

Millennials in the Workforce

Millennials are part of the generation born between 1981 and 1996. This is the generation that grew up with technology at the forefront of their everyday life. Technological advances made this generation appreciate convenience and flexibility more than previous generations.

Because many Millennials come from single-family homes, they place a strong emphasis on organizational culture and positive interpersonal relationships. When these components are fractured, they’re more likely to abandon ship for a position elsewhere.

In spite of the fact that many have student loan debt, in the end, they appreciate feeling valued and connected to others around them more than they do financial compensation.

They also thrive on teamwork and have a lot to bring to the table in terms of creativity. While older generations are set in tradition, Millennials are more likely to challenge the status quo. Millennials are boldly honest and passionate about what they believe in and will stand up for something when they believe there’s a better way.

In short, Millennials:

  • Are technology-oriented and innovative, meaning they’re always looking for a newer, better way to achieve a goal.
  • Crave flexibility.
  • Value interpersonal relationships above all else and if the workplace culture doesn’t support this, they’ll find work elsewhere.
  • Are creative and can bring new ideas to the table.
  • Are passionate, honest, and opinionated.

Generation X in the Workplace

65.8 million Gen Xers comprise the U.S. workforce. This generation of 37- to 52-year olds appreciate diversity more than previous generations and tend to be more educated than Baby Boomers.

Gen Xers are of the last era of primarily two-income families, although many Gen Xers were children of divorce. Though many of their parents struggled financially through unstable economies, many Gen Xers saw a healthier economy when they entered the workforce.

Because many Gen-X children were home while mom was out contributing to the family income, they learned to be independent and inventive. They also tend to resist authority and structure and prefer freedom in the workplace. But, they value responsibility.

Generation X, like Millennials, have a high degree of comfort with technology. They appreciate convenience and are highly adaptive.

Gen Xers are hardworking and ambitious but like to have fun as well. Compared to Millennials, who are often neck-deep in debt, Gen Xers tend to have more assets than debt.

In short, Generation X:

  • Are products of two-income families.
  • Are independent and resourceful.
  • Resist authority in the workplace, but value personal responsibility.
  • Are comfortable with technology and are highly adaptive.
  • Are ambitious and hard-working.
  • Are less likely to be in debt.

Baby Boomers in the Workplace

The Baby Boomer generation is those approaching retirement years and are aged 53 to 71. In other words, this is likely the oldest generation in your workplace.

Baby Boomers may be years ahead of Millennials and Gen Xers, but don’t allow that to mislead you. Baby Boomers often feel just as young as they did in their 30s. For the one-third of boomers who are still working, they want to matter and have purpose. They’re loyal in all that they do and expect loyalty in return.

Boomers have a high work ethic and are passionately committed to everything they do, in particular, their work. Because boomers likely represent the generation who’s been the most committed to your organization, they likely have a plethora of knowledge that can be passed down to the newer generations of your workforce.

As a leader, you can use this wisdom and organizational savviness in your favor by encouraging the Baby Boomers in your company to mentor Millennials and Gen Xers.

In short, Baby Boomers:

  • May be the oldest generation on your payroll but are still young at heart.
  • Are loyal and expect loyalty in return.
  • Prize themselves on their work ethic.
  • Likely have a plethora of knowledge about your company.
  • Make excellent mentors to the younger generations and can pass on organizational knowledge.

Why is it Important to Manage Unhealthy Conflict in the Workplace?

Conflict in the workplace can affect your entire company culture. Your company culture is the heartbeat of your organization. It’s what allows your company to thrive and meet its objectives. How you handle conflict in your workplace defines your company’s values and beliefs.

Unfortunately, generation gaps can be a primary cause of friction in your workplace. Millennials and Gen Xers communicate differently from Baby Boomers. Each has different values and work ethics. But, it doesn’t have to be a Baby Boomer vs. Millennial vs. Gen Xer type scenario.

The key to bridging the generation gap may be in utilizing those differences. It’s important to remember that each generation has been shaped by its own set of political, social, and economic factors.

Examples of Conflict in the Workplace

A study highlighted by the APA (American Psychological Association) showed that generational conflict is more likely to arise during teamwork. Baby Boomers tend to think that the old ways of doing things are best while Gen Xers and Millennials assume boomers are unwilling to depart from tradition.

Gen Xers also might assume that Millennials are spoiled and entitled, and Millennials might see Gen Xers as pessimistic and skeptical.

A common scenario in generational conflict at work is when a younger son prepares to take over the family business. The father may be hesitant to change of any kind because, after all, his ways are what made the business successful in the first place.

Baby boomer entrepreneurs or older generations may not quite understand the full importance of technological advances in the workplace. Contrast that to a Millennial or Gen Xer who understands that the world today revolves around technology.

Conflict resolution may lie in finding that balance between tradition and innovation and allow enough compromise to build on new ideas and blend the work ethics of all generations.

Keys to Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

The first key to resolving any conflict is acknowledging it exists. From there, we can determine the factors leading to the conflict. In the case of generational conflict, as we’ve already alluded to, it typically stems from each generation having different values and ideas about the way things should be.

Conflict management techniques are easier to employ than you may think. An honest conversation about what makes each generation unique and understanding the perspectives of each is a great first step. From there, compromise becomes a more feasible option.

Bridging a Stronger Workforce

So, now that you understand what’s at play in your workforce, identify which generation you belong to. As a person at the top of the corporate ladder, you can help those in your generation understand other generations better.

At the same time, you can learn to identify better with those from alternate generations. Your actions help to identify your company’s values and can go a long way in teaching others generational tolerance as you attempt to bridge a stronger workforce.

These are just a few of the strategies you can start implementing today. The experts at Stanislaw Consulting have additional tools that can help you and your organization change the dynamics to bridge the generational differences in your workplace.

To confidentially discuss your succession plan and conerns with David Stanislaw, please fill out the form below. He will contact you personally via your preferred contact method.

There is no obligation for this initial discussion.

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David Stanislaw, Principal, (866) 222-7272