The term generation gap is used to describe the different values and attitudes between one age group and another. It is typically used to describe differences between parents and their children but since the 1960s, the term generation gap has also been used to describe the clash between age groups in the workplace. Since we humans live 77 to 80 years on average, as many as five potential generations may exist in the workplace today creating significant leadership opportunities and challenges.
The five generations that could be present are the following:
- Traditionalist – born prior to 1946 (ages 68-100)
- Baby Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 (ages 58-67)
- Generation X – born between 1965 and 1980 (ages 41-57)
- Generation Y (millennials) – born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 26-41)
- Generation Z – born between 1997 and 2012 (ages 10-25)
When people of the same generation sharing similar values and attitudes work together, communication and other relational dynamics typically go smoother. Tensions and other issues often arise because each generation brings its own style, values, and attitudes. These challenges must be acknowledged by leadership and managed with intention or what could be a strength of diversity will likely become a dysfunctional weakness from two perspectives.
The first is the employee-to-employee perspective which is critical. Different generations interacting with each other may lead to miscommunication or misunderstanding. The generation gap between employees often shows up through modes of communication, the words, and gestures used. Furthermore, the way each generation handles confrontation and conflict may also be a point of friction.
The second is the manager-to-employee perspective, another sensitive area. Generation gaps in this situation could be difficult if the relationship starts on the wrong foot with leadership unaware of the differences in the way generations communicate, view authority, life-work balance, and relationships.
The manager must also plan how to address these issues proactively, avoiding difficult or tense situations. Having difficult situations at work could lead to poor morale and productivity, which will reflect on the leader’s performance.
Generation gaps at work mean more work is needed to cultivate an environment that respects each generation’s perspective and way of life. This also means the manager must be observant and knowledgeable of the various traits associated with each generation.
Over the next several articles, I will offer general profiles of each generation to help you better manage expectations, judgments, and leadership with each one. Just remember, general characteristics should not be a substitute for investing in relationships and appreciating the uniqueness of an individual. We’ll begin with the oldest generation, the Traditionalists.
The Traditionalist Generation dealt with some incredible social issues like the Great Depression, World War I, and World War II. The military influenced their way of life since war was a great part of their cultural experience and many served during this era.
The traditionalists were brought up during “tough times” where scarcity of resources was caused by economic troubles and war. Since the country was in a military and social program mode, individuality was not celebrated. The culture saw a uniform thought pattern, which was brought on by rallying against a visible foe.
Traditional values in terms of family structure and gender roles influenced the workplace during this generation. Men mostly dominated the workplace. In essence, the traditionalist had to work hard and see that as the way to live life.
Traditionalists are considered hardworking because they grew up during a time when jobs were not abundant. They are willing to put in long hours because they believe hard work is the way you earn a better position, more money and prestige in the company.
Traditionalists are loyal to their employers and tend not to move from employer to employer. They stay where they are if possible. Furthermore, traditionalists tend to be submissive to upper management because they were taught to respect authority.
Traditionalists are least likely to initiate conflict or get involved with office “drama”. They make good team players because they focus on work and avoid causing trouble. At the same time, they tend to resist change as they value safety, security, consistency, and commitment.
Today, traditionalists comprise about five percent of the working population. Most traditionalists are retired. Nonetheless, they bring a strong work ethic to the workplace. They are dedicated to their employers and value leadership and hierarchy.
- Traditionalists like to be recognized for their hard work.
- Traditionalists also see work as a team effort and avoid conflict.
- This group is also technically challenged, and they may struggle to learn new technology.
- They also prefer lecture, in-person-style training over web-based.
Since traditionalists are near retirement, it can be somewhat challenging to lead and motivate them. Often their zeal for working their way to the top and achievement have waned since they no longer have something to prove. Their motivation is likely more around leaving a legacy through others who’ve gleaned from their experience or helping position the company they’ve been loyal to for continued success. These folks may also offer a much-needed source of stability, maturity, wisdom and consistency for the organization.
Stay tuned for the next article as I continue to unpack each generation and ways to better lead them. In the meantime, consider the way we’re wired as leaders plays a huge role in how we influence and get the best from our employees, regardless of generation.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Effectively Leading Across Generation Gaps where we’ll profile Baby Boomers and Generations X through Z to help you better manage expectations, judgments, and leadership with each one. Just remember, general characteristics should not be a substitute for investing in relationships and appreciating the uniqueness of each stakeholder on your team.