When generations collide


"I once diapered somebody who is now my boss's age."

If you're one of America's 80 million baby boomers, you can probably substitute doctor, attorney or accountant for boss, and you'll still be on track. This whole "everybody is getting younger and younger thing" is all very cute—but when the clash of generations affects us on the job, it's sometimes hard to keep one's sense of humor.

That's the concept behind When Generations Collide, an engaging book by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman, whose company Bridegworks is designed to broker generation gaps at work.

For the first time ever, there are four, distinctly different generations in the workplace. Differences in values, attitudes, work ethic and vocabulary can create, at best, misunderstanding, at worst, cultural mayhem. Lancaster, 46 and Stillman, 33, communication consultants who joined forces almost seven years ago, saw these generational differences as the key to clashing attitudes in the workplace. The pair identified a series of "clash points" that, depending on how they're managed, can either create divisive sparks or promote exciting synergy at work.


"The four generations bring very different experiences to the table," said Lancaster, who is based in Sonoma, California, while her partner lives in Minneapolis. Consider how they define the players involved:

Traditionalists: born between 1900 and 1945, this group, about 75 million strong, reflect a "heads down, onward and upward" attitude on the job and possess a work ethic shaped by World Wars and the Great Depression. Influences? People like Joe DiMaggio, John Wayne, FDR and places like Pearl Harbor, The Bay of Pigs and Korea. This group is generally patriotic and knows what its like to do without. If there were a single word to describe traditionalists, it would be loyal.

Baby Boomers: numbered at 80 million, the largest of the four groups, Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They were influenced by Martin Luther King, JFK, Gloria Steinem, the Beatles. Places like the Hanoi Hilton, Woodstock and Kent State resonate for this group. Television changed their world dramatically. And in general, they can be described as optimistic. This was the generation that believed that anything was possible—that they really could change the world.

Gen Xers: born between 1965 and 1980, this relatively small (46 million) segment of the workforce saw the likes of Bill Clinton, Al Bundy, Madonna, Beavis and Butthead and Dennis Rodman make headlines during their formative years. Their world shape-changed to include the former Soviet Union, Lockerbie, Scotland and the Internet—in fact this is the generation that is defined, more than any other by media and technology. For Gen Xers, the watchword is skepticism—this group puts more faith in the individual, in themselves, than in any institution, from marriage to their employer.

Millennials: the youngest members of what will be the next Boomer wave, some 76 million strong Millennials were born between 1981 and 1999. Although they are just starting to trickle into the workforce, this group grew up with everybody from Prince William to Winky Tinky, Felicity, Marilyn Manson, Venus and Serena Williams and Britney. They have already lived through Columbine, the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, September 11. Stillman and Lancaster describe this group as realistic, confident and pragmatic. Raised by optimistic Boomers, Millennials feel empowered to take positive action when things go wrong.

Take all of the above, put them into a busy office environment, and it's inevitable that something interesting is going to happen.

My brother, a Gen Xer, asked me not too long ago to take a look at his resume. To my eye, his record of changing jobs every year or two looks disastrous. To him, it looks as though he's been doing what he needs to do to get ahead. "In a world where companies show little loyalty to employees, a Gen Xer believes he has to take care of himself—to stay in survivor mode to avoid being downsized," said Lancaster. Where a traditionalist might believe changing jobs carries a stigma, a Boomer may think it puts you behind the pack, while a Gen Xer believes it's a necessity. As for a Millennial, changing jobs is simply part of their everyday routine.

Here's another example. A Gen Xer was assigned to "supervise" a Boomer writer at a busy marketing firm. In his mind, this means going into her office every hour or so and asking how she's doing. At first blush, this seems like he is checking up on her. But as Stillman points out, Gen Xers need constant feedback. It's just how they're wired. If the writer can understand that, and realize the kind of feedback her supervisor needs to be able to relax, she can defuse what could otherwise be a tense situation.

With many Baby Boomers heading towards retirement, it's clear that we're going to have to get along—since there are so much fewer of the next generation to step up to take their place. "It's the older generation's job to pass on knowledge, wisdom and experience—but that's tough to do if you're not talking the same language," Said Lancaster. "So what happens when a Gen Xer manages a Baby Boomer or even a Traditionalist? And how do we translate these generational differences into something positive, instead of divisive? "We found out in our research that many people feel that their generation is not just undervalued, but disliked by other generations at work," said Lancaster. "That can also apply in a family setting, where both children and adults feel misunderstood."

Here are a few of Stillman and Lancaster's tips for crossing the generational divide:

Give people the benefit of the doubt: Don't assume everyone is playing by your rules with your definitions. Too often, somebody may feel that a rule was "broken" by a colleague, when in reality, that person didn't even know the rule existed in the first place.

Flexibility is in: employees of different generations thrive in cultures where they can be who they are and express themselves, where they are encouraged to learn from, not become, one another.

"In my day" doesn't mean it's "the only way." Instead of being stuck in one mindset, we need to let "in my day" be a way to connect with one another. We need to listen, to consider other possibilities, to not assume that our way is always best—something that all generations can be guilty of.

"Exposing ourselves to generational diversity can offer wonderful insight into how the world once was, how it is today and where we all might be in the future," said Stillman. "The next time you bump into somebody another generation, stop and remember that no one is right or wrong—we're just different." And those are the kind of differences we have to learn to live with.

Originally published in Newark Star Ledger, March 29, 2004