Managing Across the Generation Gap

Future entrepreneurs are more likely to work with people of all ages. An author on this topic discusses how they can do so successfully

Demographic studies show that entrepreneurs in the future are more likely to be working with people of all ages than they are today. Twenty-somethings may be supervising senior citizens who have delayed retirement. Baby boomers will increasingly recruit Gen Xers to form the backbone of their small firms (see, 1/16/07, "Lure of Entrepreneurship Beckons Boomers"). How can members of various generations—whose outlooks and life experiences are so different—work together successfully? That's the subject of a new book, Bridging the Generation Gap (Career Press). Robin Throckmorton, owner of Strategic Human Resources, a Cincinnati-based HR consultancy, and Linda Gravett, a national speaker and human resources consultant, are the authors.

Throckmorton spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about how new dynamics in the workplace can be navigated successfully. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what were your basic conclusions?

Linda interviewed 500 people in each of the four generations we identified, doing a random sampling of folks who had volunteered to participate. She did all the interviews face-to-face or over the telephone, rather than via postal mail or e-mail. Then we spent about three years sifting through the results and interpreting what people were saying.

Overall, we recognized that understanding how work ethics and upbringing have differed among the different age groups is the key to one generation managing another, or even just cohabiting in the cubical next door. It's not helpful for one generation to judge another, or to ask people from one group to conform to the expectations of another. It's never going to work. All the groups have to learn to adapt and work together.

The key to making communications, teamwork, and productivity successful between the generations is to both understand and respect the differences. The business owners and managers who do this in the future will be the ones to succeed.

What generations did you identify, and what are some of the key differences between them?

The "Radio Babies"—people born between 1930 and 1945—are retiring at a fast pace, but 63 million still clock in to workplaces everyday. Many of them are still energetic and enthusiastic about their careers. They want respect, inclusion, and they want to leave a meaningful legacy.

The baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1964—are still going strong, representing 78 million workers and business owners. They want respect for their experience and expertise, and even if some no longer want career advancement, they want challenging assignments, lateral moves, and respect for the dues they have paid. They tend to understand technology and use it comfortably.

The Generation Xers were born between 1965 and 1976. They are the smallest wedge of the pie, at 48 million strong. They are independent but will be loyal to an organization if it's willing to listen to them. They want bosses who are respectable mentors. Once they are won over by a boss or company owner, Gen Xers will be totally committed and dedicated to their jobs.

Believe it or not, the Generation Yers, born between 1977 and 1991, have surpassed the baby boomers in the workforce, with 80 million represented. This group is the "why-ers." You need to explain to them why they need to do something to ensure that they do it. They do not know a life before technology. They want to be treated with respect and make significant contributions to their organizations as they learn. They are not interested in waiting 10 or 15 years to pay their dues.

The youngest generation, the Millennials born since 1991, is just joining the workforce. They will continue to push for cutting-edge technology; for paid time off for them to engage in community activities; and for respect and recognition as the unique individuals that they are.

While we've probably all heard certain stereotypes about the various generations, how do they translate into the day-to-day workplace dynamics?

The reality is that younger people are buying companies and managing departments, and they often find themselves supervising older people. One of the big areas of conflict is over communications. Younger generations communicate with e-mail, text messages, or instant messaging. Older generations want to speak face-to-face, or at least over the telephone. That can create problems where older employees are expecting personal feedback from a younger boss, while the boss thinks the e-mail she sent should cover all the bases.

Compromise helps. Older employees should send frequent e-mail updates to their younger bosses, and those bosses should remember to walk down the hall and spend a few minutes speaking to their employees every day.

What about expectations on issues where we often hear about conflicts, like dress codes and keeping regular business hours?

Baby boomers are used to coming in early, staying late, and working weekends when the company needs them. In contrast, your Gen Y employees may show up at 10 o'clock in the morning. The Gen Xers may want to work from home, or have time off to spend with their families. All the groups want the company to succeed, they want customers to be happy, and they want to contribute to that success. But the path they see to getting to that result is different.

We encourage people in the younger generation, particularly entrepreneurs, to set the example for their employees. It still surprises a lot of people if the CEO shows up for work in a T-shirt and jeans. They need to recognize that their clothes and their language does make a big first impression that impacts their credibility.

There's also a lot of stereotyping that happens around this issue, however. There are lots of Gen Y individuals who don't fit the stereotype of having multiple body piercings and wild-colored hair. They look just as professional as anyone else, and they resent being put into that stereotypical category.

What advice do you give older employees, perhaps people working as consultants or semi-retired, in dealing with younger bosses and business owners?

It's okay to be confident about your experience, but don't expect to go in to a company owned by someone younger and immediately be in charge. Don't hover like a parent over a younger boss, or a younger colleague. Sometimes older generations sweep in and want to show "the kids" the ropes—even if those kids are in charge. The younger generations want to be respected and they want others to recognize that they have value to add to the company. Or else they wouldn't be there.

What about the younger generations? How do you advise them to behave with older colleagues or employees?

They need to realize that it turns off older people if they use too much slang and too much computer language. They should not stereotype older people as inflexible, too tired, and too old to change. The reality is that they can change if you involve them in the change and engage their experience to help you and your company get through it. Older people want to be respected because they can still work, they are reliable and they are productive.

The bottom line for everyone is this: Everyone wants respect: older people for the experience and knowledge they can share; younger people for their technology skills and adaptability.

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