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The Great Divide in Workforce Generations: Who Will Win?

Lately the generational divide has been a topic front and center, in conferences, the press, blogs...we are surprised, and a little concerned with the assumptions about each generation that is being offered up as the "capital T" truth.

Millennials now make up more than half of the general workforce, which may explain why they are taking a large majority of the heat. If you look at what's being said, you'd think millennial zombies are coming in mass to get us. They will soon take over business as we know it, booting out boomers, trampling Gen Xers, and demanding every entitlement under the sun. According to negative press, millennials are narcissistic martyrs with unrealistic expectations.

Other generations are receiving criticism as well. Here's some of what's being said:

Baby boomers are too stiff and not adaptable.

Traditionalists are resistant to new technology.

Gen Xers lack collaborative people skills.

So where do these negative stereotypes come from? Most likely from opposing generations voicing their frustration when attempting to navigate relationships with colleagues from other generations.

This frustration may be rooted in the fact that with each generation, there has been a need to adapt a unique set of strengths and weakness to survive the circumstances of the times. Among other factors, traditionalists had to adapt in response to WW2 and the great depression, baby boomers experienced societal changes through the civil rights movement, GenX saw significant shifts in familial structures, and millennials are faced with new economic and social challenges not seen by previous generations. These circumstances have endowed each generation with assets they've brought to the workplace, as well as differences that can cause a generational "butting of heads."

The truth is that stereotypes and labels can be harmful when they lead to assumptions, communication barriers, and an "us vs. them" mentality.

So we thought we'd add a different perspective to the chatter, from both sides of the generational divide.

From Stacey, EVP of Sales and Marketing, the Millennial:

Sure, some millennials can be needy at times - wanting feedback on a weekly basis. And yes, some millennials think they deserve their promotions before they have shown impact in their roles. Others not so much. As a generation, we do love our technology and continually improving our devices and toys. The thing is, there are millennials that work all hours to tackle a tough challenge. Millennials want opportunity to make impact. We want access, and frankly, are scared that we won't be able to have the influence needed. Imagine that.

It may sound weird, but yes, I do prefer face-to-face conversations when I have a difficult topic to talk about with someone. I also am not a serial job hopper—I can actually be loyal to a fault. I don't expect to get something unless I work very hard, and then if I achieve it, I work more to share gratitude for all the people who inevitably helped along the way.

I am not the stereotypical millennial and I do not believe the publicized generalizations apply to most of my millennial peers, either.

More than ever, all generations are aware of global issues. We're all asking, "How can we solve these issues? Millennials do not necessarily believe that gamification and technology need to be inserted between us and the problem, but it could be.

We crave working with you, Boomers. After all, you taught us everything we know for the most part. You are our parents, and now you are our future coaches. We need you to guide us in what we don't know, so we can truly bring something new to the table.

We can even do it face-to-face.

From Christine, EVP of International Expansion and Learning, the Boomer:

Sure, some of us are a little scared as the rules of engagement are changing. We are not as comfortable with digital as we should be. We are staying in our jobs longer and want the security of choosing to stay. We still think face time at work (and we're willing to put in a lot of it) is the only time that counts. We fear our experience may no longer be valued. And we're a little unsure about the idea of a global generational society.

And others of us welcome this new and fresh perspective. We are rolling up our sleeves and jumping into the digital world. We love the freedom of being untethered in the old traditional ways. We don't fear our worth and want to have our perspectives challenged. We don't see the need for putting in time before you can have a voice at the table, and that multiple, often competing realities (insert generations) lead to better decisions and innovation...

And, after all, these are our children, and we think we've done a damn good job raising them.

When Generations Butt Heads

We have found that the generational divide is not so big, and we are more alike than we are different. The reality of each generation challenges the stereotypes. While media will always make a big stink about competing generations, the truth is, we need each other!

That said, the hope would be that generations could coexist in peace 24/7, but this isn't always the case. If you or someone you know is engaged in what seems to be a generational conflict, here are a couple of tips to restore harmony to the workplace dynamic:

1. Show respect for different perspectives. The perspective of each individual in an organization represents one "stripe" in the "beach ball" model—all stripes are required to see the bigger truth. While you may initially experience resistance to new ideas, remaining open will lead to the best and most innovative decisions. Be willing to express disagreement while seeking to understand other perspectives at the same time. Ask questions and show curiosity with the intention to gain a deeper understanding. Listen for what matters to them.

2. Approach the issue as a human issue rather than a generational one. Regardless of generation, people are people. If we approach the situation as generational, we run the risk of labeling, falling prey to bias, and making false assumptions. Commit to having the conversation necessary to resolve the problem, whether it's a feedback, coaching, or a confrontation conversation with the individual(s) involved, and remove the generational lens you may have when doing so.

What do you think? What would you add? Leave us a comment to share your thoughts.

It's important to leverage the strengths of each generation and achieve a collaborative workforce. Find actionable tips in our "Multigenerational Advantage" whitepaper.


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