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Generational Diversity in the Workplace [Cont]

So What?

The differences between generations may be interesting, but do they mean anything in the

workplace? The answer is yes, but the more important questions are “Why?” and “How?”

The why goes back to the lists of core values presented above. Values drive behavior, often in ways that we don’t even notice. When people are working side-by-side and have largely different values, conflicts tend to erupt, hampering productivity and morale in workplace settings. Add to that the observation that our workplace is dominated by two generations (Boomers and

Generation X)—one of whom tends to be supervising the other—and the repeated generationally-based conflicts are going to attract attention.

The “how” comes out in many different forms. For example, Boomers and Generation Xers often clash over the topic of benefits. Baby Boomers, with their own retirement looming, often place emphasis on retirement benefits, 401(k) contributions and the like. Generation Xers, on the other hand may be focused on dependent care and parental leave. The challenge in organizations is to provide benefits (and particularly communicate changes in them) that address both generations’ needs.

Where these conflicts become especially difficult, however, is when one they move away from mere interest-based differences and into negative generational stereotypes. For instance, when Boomers see their Generation X colleagues’ lack of interest in retirement, they sometimes develop a conclusion that Generation Xers are apathetic or only that they only care about instant gratification. These negative stereotypes make communication difficult and can sap productivity and morale in many different ways. As one author describes it,

In a nutshell: Boomers see Xers as disrespectful of rules, scornful about paying dues and lacking employer loyalty. They "couldn't care less" is a phrase boomers often use to describe them. Xers, of course, have a different view of themselves—and why they act the way they do. "You have to remember that we entered the working world in the post-job-security, post-pension-security era, in the wake of downsizing" says Tulgan [an author on generational differences, and a member of Generation X]. "That means traditional notions of loyalty and dues paying aren't really applicable. That kind of career model isn't even available to us. That doesn't mean we're disloyal. In fact, we're capable of a new kind of loyalty, which managers can easily earn by forging a new workplace bargain based on relationships of short-term mutual benefit." (Flynn 1996, p. 88)

Now What?

Responding to these generational differences and conflicts requires the same skills needed to deal with other diversity issues: awareness, communication, and the ability to manage conflict productively.

Awareness of the generalized differences among the generations (summarized above) can help all employees work more productively with each other. Knowing in advance how each generation can be triggered, either positively or negatively, can help organizations develop balanced policies and can help indiivudal managers and employees structure their work interactions in ways that benefit all types of people.

Effective communication strategies enable employees and managers to avoid the whirlpools of bad morale and lost productivity that accompanies the use of negative stereotypes. There are simple processes and frameworks for having difficult conversations that allow people from all generations to effectively explore the assumptions and behaviors that underlie negative stereotypes.

Communication skills are also the foundation of effective conflict resolution skills. While negotiation skills enhance one’s ability to understand the root causes of conflict and generate creative solutions, they all rely on the ability of the individuals involved to communicate clearly around difficult, often emotionally charged subjects.

Developing employees’ awareness of inter-generational issues and enhancing their skills in conflict resolution and communication should contribute to increased effectiveness in the workplace. But developing skills should be the higher priority for organizations who want to better deal with generational diversity. Awareness of generational trends is helpful, but it also carries the danger of reinforcing stereotypes—either positive or negative. Remember that these generational descriptions are based on rather imprecise data. Differences among individuals, particularly at the edges where one generation “begins” and one “ends” may not be noticeable. And generations change over time, so what is true for Generation Xers today may not be true in ten or fifteen years.

An over-reliance on the detailed profiles of each generation will get organizations in trouble. Instead, organizations should develop in their employees the skills to manage ALL differences—including generational differences—in ways that promote respect and empowerment for everyone.


Center for Generational Studies. www.gentrends.com “Dispell Those Gen-X Myths” (1996). Personnel Journal, November 1996, Vol. 75, No. 11, p. 88.

Flynn, Gillian (1996). “Xers versus Boomers: Teamwork or Trouble?” Personnel Journal, November 1996, Vol. 75, No. 11, pp. 86-89.

Hays, Scott (1999). “Generation X and the Art of Reward.” Workforce, November 1999, Vol. 78, No. 11, pp. 44-48.

Hicks, R. and K. Hicks (1999). Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers: Understanding the Generational Differences that Divide Us. Wheaton, MD: Tyndale House Publishers.

Raines, Claire (2002). “Meet the Generations.” On-line document (www.generationsatwork.com)

Zemke, Ron, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak (1999). Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace. Amacom.

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About the Author: Jamie Notter is President of Notter Consulting. Notter Consulting provides consulting, training, and coaching programs that enable leaders to get better results by managing their people dynamics with skill and speed. Notter provided training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and diversity. For eight years prior to founding Notter Consulting, he served as a program manager of The National MultiCultural Institute and the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy.

Jamie Notter