Generational Conflict

Aug. 2, 2006
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
With the world changing at the speed of light, each generation has grown up much faster and much differently than their parents. Each brings to their workplace a unique worldview, different work ethic and skepticism about other generational groups.

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.

All that influenced Traditionalists by instilling an exceptionally strong work ethic built on a foundation of tradition and respect. Yet, because of the challenges they faced early in life, they worry about becoming obsolete — unless they own the company. They have great respect for elders and authority. They are highly dedicated and believe in the concept of personal sacrifice for the greater good. They are generally honest, hard-working and willing to follow the rules. Unlike Baby Boomers and younger generations, they are very willing to delay rewards and gratification.

Other generations view Traditionalists as old-fashioned, stubborn and unwilling to change. Traditionalists are uncomfortable with conflict, but can be overbearing. They strongly believe in gender roles and are hesitant to change or buck the system. They tend to be highly conservative.

Baby Boomer basics

If Baby Boomers are anything, they are generally optimistic. They like to work and believe in personal growth, but they expect instant gratification. They are usually team-oriented and willing to go the extra mile to accomplish their goals. For them, health and wellness is a life priority.

They, too, are uncomfortable with conflict and will often need to process information or situations before deciding on a course of action. Managers won’t be surprised to learn that Baby Boomers are often overly sensitive and highly judgmental. Sometimes they struggle to keep up with technology, but they are willing to do so in order to ensure they aren’t left behind.

Xers mark their spot

As a group, Generation Xers are highly literate when it comes to technology. They embrace diversity and global thinking. However, they are highly self-reliant, most likely from years of experience as latch-key children. They generally prefer a more informal structure that allows them to quickly adapt to changes. They are unintimidated and willing to speak their minds on many issues — whether to a coworker or to the boss herself. But, Generation Xers are usually very impatient and have poor people skills outside their own generation. As the first generation raised in broken homes, they are often cynical. Expect conflict when communicating to a Generation Xer whenever you use a tone that resembles parent to child communication.

Make way for the Millennials

Highly optimistic and very confident, today’s Millennial generation has lots of street smarts, but lack critical thinking skills. Achievement-oriented and very social in work and informal settings; they lack what Traditionalists would likely call “manners.”

They are masters at multitasking, often capable of reading, communicating via instant messaging and watching television at the same time. They see technological changes as progress, something they must embrace quickly. They, too, fit in among diverse groups of people. While multi-tasking may be an asset, they also need supervision and structure to remain on task. They have no knowledge of or respect for corporate hierarchy, thinking they can simply start at top positions — or should ascend to that position within a few years of starting work. “If Millennials feel connected to a company, they are more likely to stay with the job,” the Stendes said. “But, they must have relationships with people in the workplace. Relationships create far more value for Millennials than money.”

By understanding dynamics in play among the multiple generations working in any ground support environment, today’s modern manager can tap each group’s unique strengths to challenge employees to produce their best. That way they’ll form partnerships that will keep the dealership moving forward for generations.