In years gone by, two or, perhaps, three generations worked side-by-side. Today five generations of people share the workplace for a wide range of reasons. Twenty-first-century economic realities make early retirement unrealistic for most. At the same time, people are living longer with healthier, vibrant lives and would like to stay at work. Thus, we have workers from multiple generations vying for jobs and getting along with people with diverse backgrounds, value sets, and professional goals. Some characterize this as a clash of the generations. Others characterize it as an opportunity to find the right people to fill vacancies and leverage the knowledge that each worker uniquely brings to bear.
Just saying the words “generation gap implies that we have a deep divide between old and young people that it difficult to overcome. Kingsley Davis first wrote about this gap over sixty years ago! He concluded that rapid social change was creating a challenging parent-child-teenager conflict that we hadn’t faced before. His first article sparked a considerable body of research about the generation gap. This research reported a wide range of results.
One perception that seems to persist is that each generation is vastly different from the one that preceded it. These differences are viewed in terms of the generational values, attitudes, and lifestyle. This implies that the generations do not share things in common. There is also a continuing belief that each generation cannot possibly meet the needs of the other, before or after them.
When we step back to critically inspect this perception, we do see some of these dynamics. But it is not as common as we believe. We continue to see previous generations influencing younger generations in spite of having their differences. As a result, we need to look at the gap as something that is less gaping and less hostile than the media or business writers would have us believe. In reality, there is plenty of cooperation between generations, especially once individuals come to know and understand one another
There is one thing we know for sure. In one workplace, four and sometimes five generations are working side-by-side. We can identify specific characteristics each generation embodies. But note, these differences are generally about how they approach life, not just work. While these characteristics are broad – and could become stereotypes if we aren’t careful – they are useful to help isolate areas where conflict and cooperation are possible.
Breaking Down the Generations
It helps to understand the influencing social and economic climate surrounding each generation as it emerged. The culture around the times each generation grew up are very different, which has strongly influenced the differences that we do see between the groups.
The breakdown we’re sharing is taken from North American data and provides simple averages. If you live and work outside North America, you will want to look at your regional data. You may also find different labels for these generations, which are actively debated. For example, even in North America the Generation Y has virtually disappeared. Millennials has taken its place. However, on average, these statistics and categories will get you started.
- The Silent generation (born 1930-1945) grew up with news coming in the form of newspapers and radio. They grew up after World War I and the stock market crash of the 1920s. Their most formative years were during the depression of the “dirty thirties.” They also belonged to the era that brought jazz music alive. They were drawn into the Second World War (1939 for the UK and Canada; 1941 for the United States). In the UK, they are called the Air Raid generation. They worked at mostly manual jobs, raised families, went to church, and celebrated life as part of a mostly nuclear family.
- The Baby Boomers (1946-1965) were born in the triumphant period following World War II, a time of economic growth and technological advancement. In addition to the beginnings of space travel, this was the time of the American Civil Rights movement. Boomers were also a part of (or observed) the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Technology advanced at a rapid pace and was, for the most part, embraced for both the workplace and at home. Family and church were central to the makeup of society. The availability of the birth control pill had a huge impact in subsequent years.
- Generation Xers (1966-1976) fully embraced the technological age. In some areas, they were raised as much by television and external influences as they were by the traditions and influence of their families. This was a time of massive layoffs as businesses downsized, reorganized, and re-engineered. If they didn’t feel the impact of these layoffs directly, they had friends who did. Attending college and university became a normal extension of high school, rather than as something reserved for the wealthy.
- Generation Y (1977-1985) launched the phenomena of the latchkey kid, the product of two working parents or one single parent. They had to let themselves into their houses alone and, therefore, carry keys around their necks so they wouldn’t lose them. They dedicated considerable time to home-based computer and Internet activities, as well as generated a culture of computer-based games and individual ownership of telephones (particularly cell phones). They find it difficult to imagine a life that is not fully supported by technology.
- The Millennials (born 1986-2000) are named as such because they began entering the workforce at or around the turn of the century. They have plenty in common with Generation Y in terms of being raised with technology, the Internet, and the proliferation of mass communication around the world. They have added concerns about their personal safety and security. The proliferation of violence in acts such as school shootings, workplace conflict, publicity of drug and gang crimes, the impact of 9/11, and war and economic challenges cannot be overstated. This generation is looking at the previous generation with a raised eyebrow, questioning the habit of completing a four-year degree as a sure way to get a good job
Find Common Ground in Core Values
You may have seen charts that line up the basic differences among generations. There certainly are some differences. However, those differences are generally related to differences in upbringing, family life, and life experiences. The differences are broad within each generation, so it is not difficult to think that they might span across generations.
In actuality, studies show that individuals across all generations have very similar values. For example, across all generations, family, integrity, and love are the top three core values. The exception is the late Generation X group, who put family, love, and spirituality in their top three. Spirituality was in fourth or fifth place in the other generations. Statistically, all generations value the same things.
Conflict arises in how the generations behave and express their values, not in the values themselves. In the workplace, for example, some people might be more or less likely to compromise when they’re working on a project. Others will dig in their heels and maintain that their approach is the best approach. These differences say more about individual styles or personality than they do about their generational characteristics.