Generational Conflict

It takes diplomatic skill and patience to get Matures, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials to work together.

Never before have four vastly different generations of people been forced to work together, especially with such extreme differences in culture.

There is always some generational conflict, ask any parent. But talk to any manager who must supervise people ranging in age from 20 to 70 and if they’re not pulling out their hair, it’s because they’ve lost it all already. American culture features four distinct population groups:

  • Matures (Traditionalists) born before 1945
  • Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation Xers born from 1965 to 1980
  • Millennials born between 1981 and 1999

Troy and Karin Stende have researched the working differences between each of the generations. They’ve discovered several patterns that clearly define the expectations of each group. By understanding those differences, managers can use them to their advantage to communicate with, motivate and reward employees.

When it comes to rewards, the Stendes said Traditionalists enjoy satisfaction of a job well done, while Boomers expect title, recognition, money and a corner office. For Generation Xers, freedom is the ultimate reward, and Millennials are happy only when work has meaning for them.

What chain of command?

One of the biggest sticking points for managers is getting staff to honor a chain of command, but that’s not always possible. Traditionalists believe in and accept a top-down chain of command. Boomers feel it’s their job to shake up the chain of command, while Generation Xers believe strongly in self-command. Millennials, on the other hand, reject all thought of “command,” opting instead to “collaborate.”

Ever tried to train a staff? Traditionalists feel because they learned everything the hard way, so can the rest of the staff. Baby Boomers are skeptical about training. Train them too much and they’ll leave. Generation Xers feel the more they learn, the longer they’ll work for that employer. Millennials see continuous learning as a way of life. And no wonder, the world’s entire body of knowledge is doubling every five years.

The folly of feedback

For Traditionalists, no news is good news. Unless they’re doing something wrong, they don’t expect feedback. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, want feedback once a year — but bring lots of documentation because they are sensitive to criticism. Generation Xers adopt a “sorry to interrupt, but how am I doing” approach. If they don’t get positive strokes regularly, they’ll seek them out. Millennials want instant feedback, often at the push of a button.

Attitudes toward job change have shifted dramatically in 30 years. Traditionalists are intensely loyal to their companies and feel changing jobs carries a stigma that represents a bad mark on their career. Baby Boomers see changing jobs as taking a step backward. Generation Xers, who watched their parents get “downsized” frequently, feel the working at one place is unsafe and unstable. Therefore changing jobs is essential for survival. Millennials see changing jobs as part of their almost daily routine. In fact, the Stendes said Millennials often seek new jobs simply to increase their skill level.

Working with Traditionalists

Their heroes are Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Douglas McArthur and Babe Ruth — people who squarely faced their challenges with whatever resources they had and overcame any difficulties to achieve success.

For Traditionalists, patriotism is very important, as is family. They grew up listening to the radio and struggling through some of the nation’s toughest events: The Great Depression, a stock market crash, World War II and the Korean War. Their pop culture centered on Mickey Mouse, the Lone Ranger, Rosie the Riveter and the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

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