When generations meet on the job

A workplace expert outlines age-based 'character traits,' and how firms gain from letting them interact

When Bill Kenealy was a 40-year-old Navy officer in 1971, his future colleague Tom Sadler was still in diapers. Now, the two men work closely together and consider each other friends. But the four-decade split in age doesn't go unnoticed.

Young workers may be technically oriented, but they don't understand the function behind a business process, says Mr. Kenealy, now a defense expert who works for Calibre Systems Inc., a Northern, Va.-based professional and technology services company. Further, he says, today's young workers "don't express themselves in complete sentences."

Mr. Sadler readily admits that his generation "speaks in code ... a kind of shorthand for speech." But the program analyst also observes that when Kenealy talks "he will start every opinion with a story."

On occasion, Sadler says, this practice of reflecting on how things were in the past, "can stunt the flow of discussion."

The ability of employees like Kenealy and Sadler to bridge their generational differences is a growing issue in the workplace, experts say.

As the workforce becomes increasingly age diverse, the ability to understand and get along with others of different generations not only is a matter of office morale, but of the bottom line, they note.

"It's a critical issue [and] a key element of what makes up diversity in the workplace," says James Gambone, an intergenerational management consultant based in Minnesota.

"Many companies have found they are losing productivity simply due to missed communications and the inability of people to understand that there are different perspectives that people bring to the issue of work," he says.

Generalizations, of course, are riddled with exceptions. But four generations with distinct character traits and approaches to work now comprise the labor force, according to Claire Raines, coauthor of the book, "Generations at Work." They are:

• The World War II generation, born before about 1940, which accounts for approximately 5 percent of the workforce. Characteristics include dedication, sacrifice, and respect for authority.

• The baby-boom generation, born from about 1940 to 1960, which accounts for approximately 45 percent of the workforce. Characteristics include optimism, team orientation, and personal gratification.

• Generation X, born from about 1960 to 1980, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of the workforce. Characteristics include diversity, informality, and self-reliance.

• The millennial generation, born after 1980, which accounts for about 10 percent of the workforce. Characteristics include sociability, civic duty, and morality.

These generations are mixing more than ever before at work, Ms. Raines says, noting that older workers are staying longer on the job and corporate hierarchies have flattened over the past two decades.

"We've got people working side by side who probably wouldn't have been, the way companies were structured 20 years ago," Raines says.

All the more chance for smooth and callused elbows to bump. Office conflicts, Raines says, often have a generational issue at their heart.

"Only people haven't identified it as such, so it is much more personalized," she says, ticking off common complaints like: "Oh, she doesn't have any work ethic. Or, he's not committed to the job.' In fact, these are, often times, generational [views]."

But colleagues Sadler and Kenealy don't let their age differences cause such conflicts. Indeed, they rely on each other's generational strengths in their work to help the US military privatize its procurement cycle for basic utilities.

"Younger people, generally speaking, are able to shoulder a bigger load of the technical aspects," says Kenealy, who admits he has no qualms asking for help in this area. Meanwhile, Sadler taps Kenealy's 50 years of experience in the Navy and deep institutional knowledge of military procurement cycles as he designs a website for the complex system.

Sadler, in fact, praises his senior colleague's willingness to pass on knowledge. This is not always the case with boomers, who are still in the middle of their careers, he says.

"I sense they tend to hold onto what they know a little more," Sadler notes. "They're not as ready or willing to delegate their authority to guys of my generation who are hungry and are trying to learn, and want to assume leadership roles."

Xers vs. boomers

Generation expert Mr. Gambone notes that some of the biggest office conflicts, in fact, happen between Generation X and the boomer generations.

"The boomer generation focuses a lot on process in the workplace and the importance of inclusion," he says, noting that this translates into many meetings. "Most of the time Generation X says: 'Look I want something specific, very concrete, I want to get things done. We can put aside this whole notion of process for the benefit of actually going out and doing something."

At least one boomer says the two generations actually work well together.

Ted Zsirai, a 59-year-old senior vice president at HDR Architecture Inc., in Alexandria, Va., concedes that his generation "had to shape up to compete with the younger adults who grew up on computers and are more adapt to changes."

But he credits many positive office changes, such as "flex time" and telecommuting, to the values of younger workers. Generation X employees, he says, "probably enjoy life better than we did at their age."

In fact, 20-somethings today hold very different notions from their parents about the workday.

"A lot of [older workers] were brought up with the idea that you needed to work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and you needed to be available at your desk in case clients are calling," says 28-year-old HDR architect Kristin Stephens. "But a lot of younger people in my area of age don't think that is always necessary. We are able to get things done that need to be done in the time they need to be done, whether we are here or not."

During the tight labor market of the 1990s, many companies acknowledged this line of thinking and tailored their benefits and policies to attract younger workers with in-demand skills. New office perks included nap rooms and stocked refrigerators.

Millennials vs. Xers

The burgeoning millennial generation knows all of the workplace stories, and has "high expectations" about what jobs are going to be like, she adds. Many young 20-somethings expect their work "is going to be creative and collaborative and [the jobs] are going to be wonderful experiences," she says.

But the millennials could soon face a stark reality, especially as they bump up against Generation X, which Raines says "differs tremendously" in background and outlook from the younger cohort.

Generation Xers are going to find the millennials somewhat "Pollyanna-ish," she says of their bright-eyed optimism, which grew from an upbringing in which children were the focus of attention.

Millennials, by contrast, will see Generation Xers as "sort of wet blankets," she says, referring to their more pragmatic and even cynical outlook, born in some cases of latchkey childhoods in which self- reliance was a key trait.

The challenge of managing a multigenerational workforce is still fairly new on company radar screens, experts agree. And most workplaces have no mechanism to address the issue.

This is unfortunate, says Calibre's Kenealy, who notes there's much that older workers could pass down to younger colleagues – if only the generations were more willing to interact. "Now they are compartmentalized in their attitudes and in their information," he says of the generations. "The country could profit from an exchange."

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