Generations apart

With fewer layers of management, the clash between baby boomers andGen-Xers bubbles to the surface.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Today's twenty-somethings expect too much."

"They're so inflexible."

"They don't want anyone to tell them what to do."

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"Senior management can't make a decision without forming a committee."

These are the volleys flying between baby boomers and Generation-Xers at work. And they are echoing through the corridors of virtually every company, large and small, in corporate America.

Generation gaps in the workplace are nothing new. But this argument is much more than just a disagreement over white versus blue dress shirts. Rather, the divide between today's twenty- and forty-somethings represents a fundamental shift in the way people must work in the new just-in-time economy.

With firms struggling to attract and retain talent, they are paying closer attention to the murmurings. The issue has even spawned a new industry: cross-generational management.

"There comes a point where you can't have an internal war and still compete in the marketplace," says Ron Zemke, co-author of the upcoming book "Generations at Work" (Amacom).

Differences between generations are nothing new. Older workers often think younger workers need to be more patient; younger ones think their bosses are burned out.

Yet the elimination of much of business's old hierarchy (at least on paper) is key to why these two groups are butting heads.

"The way people structurally relate to one another has changed, and there isn't a lot of protocol," Mr. Zemke contends. "When there isn't protocol for communication, we see differences in each other."

Indeed these two generations appear to differ on just about every management point in the book - from how to hold meetings to how many hours to clock.

"We started hearing rumblings from store managers about young managers two years ago," says Deborah Masten of JCPenney, headquartered in Plano, Texas. "They'd say, 'When I started out, I worked long hours. I did whatever they wanted me to do. They come in at 8 and leave at 5.' "

Boomer managers, she says, also complain that Xers constantly question their decisions - and their authority.

Generation-Xers (dubbed baby busters) gripe just as much about their senior counterparts.

Renee Manchester, an Xer who managed baby boomers and Xers for five years at a semiconductor manufacturer, says the biggest complaint Xers had about boomers was that they based promotions on tenure rather than performance.

Boomers on the other hand complained that Xers had "unrealistic" promotion tracks. And if they didn't get what they wanted they'd leave - they're just not loyal.

"There is an element of envy that this crowd of people can do what they want and get it," says Denise Brouillette, a senior partner at The Innovative Edge, a cross-generational consulting firm in San Francisco. The friction is enormous."

The two also differ on how to communicate and learn.

"Baby boomers say Generation Xers won't stick with something long enough to get deep enough into it," says Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, a Gen-X consulting firm in New Haven, Conn.

Xers say boomers are too slow to make decisions. "They say, 'Can't they just get on with it,'" Zemke says.

Part of the key to solving the puzzle, is knowing where each generation is coming from.

Baby boomers, for example, grew up during enormous economic prosperity. Schools were safe, divorce was low. And they launched their careers at a time when hard work translated into a job for life.

Generation-Xers, on the other hand - the latch-key generation - were the first generation to grow up in two-income households. They watched their parents sacrifice for their companies only to be downsized. The result: They are fiercely independent.

"Generation-Xers have come of age during the most profound changes in the economy since the Industrial Revolution," says Mr. Tulgan, an Xer. "All of the forces shaping the economy and the workplace are the forces that have shaped Generation X."

What's happening is that companies need flexible, adaptable workers who are techno-literate.

They also need workers who understand that a job for life doesn't exist any more.

And that's what Xers bring to the workplace, many argue.

"Xers bring flexibility; they bring comfort and an ease with change. People my generation struggle with change. When you look at what the world of business is like today, Xers are the perfect fit," says Ms. Masten.

Adds Ms. Brouillette at The Innovative Edge: "Boomers waited until they were given the opportunity. Xers seize the opportunity. Xers believe that if you wait your turn, you are lost."

The problem is many companies, while they've changed the rules, are still managing the same old way.

"Instead of trying to get people to pay their dues and climb the corporate ladder," Tulgan says, "I urge companies to get really good at managing a fluid talent pool. The big thing with Generation X is that they want to know: 'What's the deal?' " he says. "So make a deal with them every step of the way."

This generation likes immediate gratification - and knowing the rewards for a job well done in advance is a big motivator.

Ms. Manchester, for example, says she would personalize awards for her Xers. She'd give free movie passes to some or an extra day off to others.

Xers also like a lot of feedback and access to as much information as possible.

"They like to be very direct, very bold and to cut to the chase and not window dress conversations," Tulgan says.

"Baby boomers tend to see this as a short-term problem - that the likelihood is that these kids will grow up and settle down," he says. "We look at it as the work force and the workplace of the future."

Baby boomers

The numbers: Broadly defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. They represent about two-thirds of all US workers.

The early years: Raised in an era of post-war prosperity, two-parent households, safe schools, and job security.

Workstyle: Value inclusion; emphasize the process of how work gets done; paid their dues and waited their turn for advancement.

Generation-Xers

(A.K.A. Baby Busters)

The numbers: Broadly defined as those born between 1969 and 1979. They represent about one-third of all US workers.

The early years: Grew up in two-career families, rising divorce, downsizing, the dawning of the high-tech age, and information overload.

Workstyle: Fiercely independent; techno-literate; like to be in control; want fast feedback.

Source: RainmakerThinking, Inc.

Whitney Dodds Woodruff - staff

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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