In recent years, one issue that has been steadily gaining cultural relevance is that of intergenerational conflict, especially that which occurs in the workplace. The presence of three distinct generational groups in the workforce and the resounding differences between them has become the foundation for escalating levels of conflict in professional settings across the country. This problem is one that is unique to the modern American workplace, where Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Generation Yers, or Millenials, work side by side, differing in age by a range of forty years or more. As both the number of Boomers and Millenials continue to rise proportionally within the workforce, tensions will likely continue to rise as well, a result of often drastic differences in areas of motivation, learning style, and overall cultural values. As population increases and technology pervades an ever-expanding sphere of private and public life, the contemporary workplace is increasingly an environment where extensive collaboration is necessary, a process that is severely hampered by the prevalence of intergenerational conflict. As differences in values and subsequent arising conflict between three distinct generations causes mounting conflict among professionals, there is a growing necessity that such conflict is understood, acknowledged, and accounted for by management in order to minimize animosity and maximize efficiency in the workplace.
Increasing conflict at work is in large part a result of crucial dissimilarities in behavior and attitude among three generations, a situation that is unique in the history of the American workplace. Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak (2000) define intergenerational conflict as discrepancies in “values and views, and ways of working, talking, and thinking that set people in opposition to each other and challenge organizational best interests (p. 11).” Internal strain can lead to “unnecessary, at times disabling, personal, departmental, and organizational conflict (Zemke et al., 2000, p. 12),” making intergenerational conflict perhaps one of the most pressing issues facing employers to date. According to statistics gathered by the Bureau of Labor, the number of workers age 55 or older will continue to increase into the next decade (Pitt-Catsouphes & Smyer, 2007), while the simultaneous influx of young professionals has troubling implications for management of an increasingly diverse workforce. As age discrimination wanes and pro-diversity in the workplace continue to grow, it is important to understand how each generation functions on a professional level, as well as have an understanding of the values and ethics shared within these groups.
Research that divides individuals into generational groups and typifies the values of individuals within these groups is invaluable in identifying a solution to the intergenerational conflict at work. Generational research can be seen as early as 1953 when individuals first began to be studied based on the social and political context within which they were raised and the trends in behavior and attitudes that came as a result (Greenwood, Gibson & Murphy, 2008). More contemporary research indicates that important aspects of personality can be attributed to the formative years, comprising the time of birth until twenty years of age (Gibson, Greenwood & Murphy, 2009). Boomers are a generation born between 1946 and 1964, whose formative years took place during a period of social and political upheaval (Gibson et al., 2009). They are typically described as competitive workaholics with a strong sense of loyalty to their company, traits attributed to experiencing the national prosperity that came about after the end of World War II (Gibson et al., 2009). Boomers are part of a generation of empowerment and diversity, and although not all could claim to have been directly involved, most at least experienced some of the activist fervor and the general free-spirited nature that typified the period of their youth (Zimke et al., 2000). As a result, Boomers embrace change and growth, believe in fighting for a just and worthy cause (Gibson et al., 2009), and are passionate about participation and energy in the workplace (Zimke et al, 2000). Perhaps the most influential factor resulting from the career progression of Boomers and contributing to intergenerational conflict is the idea of paying one's dues and the belief in the concept of hard work and step-by-step progression on the road to success (Tolbize, 2008). The contemporary workplace, while still generally employing standard processes of promotion, does not strictly adhere to the same gradual process that typified the early careers of the Boomers. This generational shift in how individuals are able to move up within a company may be viewed as an inconsistency by the Boomer generation, forming the basis for negative feelings between coworkers of different generations.
The second generational group acting on the stage of the contemporary workforce is Generation X, occupying positions that span the range of those available within the companies they work for. Gen X is comprised of those born between 1965 and 1979 and is a group known for their desire to balance work with other aspects of a well-balanced life (Gibson et al., 2009). These are individuals who were raised during a time of “financial, familial, and societal insecurity (Tolbize, 2008, p. 3).” They often lived with two working parents or experienced divorced parents, and are the generation around which the role “latchkey kids” was defined, although filling this role did grant them independence and self-reliance, as well as an appreciation for a fun work environment (Gibson et al., 2009). For many, the formative years of Generation X were wrought with signs of the decline of American global power, including a “stagnant job market, corporate downsizing, and limited wage mobility,” and they were the first generation whose earnings were predicted to be less than that of their parents (Tobize, 2008, p. 3). All of these factors combined with overall diminished opportunities for career advancement contribute to the dwindling sense of company loyalty found in Generation X compared to the Boomers (Gibson et al., 2009). Generation X values the development of knowledge and skillset, is adept at utilizing technology, and is focused on results, ultimately ruled by a sense of accomplishment rather than living up to set standards (Tolbize, 2008, p. 4). Perhaps the most impactful characteristic of Gen X is their focus and primary interest in the final result, rather than what particular steps are taken to arrive there. This is an important and notable difference from the Boomers and is the cause of a significant amount of conflict between these two generations in particular.
The final generation is the Millenials, the youngest professional group and also those bringing the most drastic shift in mindset to the modern workforce. Millennials are those born in 1980 and beyond (Gibson et al., 2009). They are a generation heavily influenced by “parental excesses, computers, and dramatic technological advances (Tolbize, 2008, p. 4).” Descriptors used in reference to Millenials are inquisitive, “optimistic, realistic, globally aware, and inclusive by nature (Gibson et al., 2009, p. 2).” In many other respects, they are similar to their predecessors, Generation X, sharing values of teamwork, optimism, adaptability, independence, and finding a balance between work and life (Tolbize, 2008). Furthermore, they are much less process-oriented than the Boomers (Tolbize, 2008), just like Generation X. Defining characteristics of Millenials are their aptitude for multitasking, ability to collaborate effectively, and also their need for frequent feedback in regards to their performance (Gibson et al., 2009). They have a sense of personal responsibility, often manifested in their desire to volunteer and general concern for society (Gibson et al., 2009), and they are considered the “most highly educated generation (Tolbize, 2008, p. 4).” Among these characteristics, it is their extreme aptitude for technology that most frequently causes a clash between Millenials and other generations, particularly Boomers. The fact that Millenials have proportionally more education than other generations adds a special kind of tension, arising as traditional company roles shift away from their generational counterparts.
With crucial and often drastic differences forming a barrier between generations, workplace conflict is heightened as a noticeable shift occurs between the correlation of age and career progression within a company. Currently, the modern workforce is made up of professionals whose ages can differ by multiple decades; however, the concept of age in the workplace must be interpreted with more in mind than just numbers. According to Pitt-Catsouphes and Smyer (2007), employers should be aware that age can be viewed in four distinct ways: “chronological age, generation, life course, and career stage (p. 2).” Central to the source of much intergenerational conflict is the fact that assumptions that were once relatively accurate can no longer be made about the relation of chronological age to life-course or career progression (Pitt-Catsouphes & Smyer, 2007). While many Boomers are approaching retirement, feelings of resentment at the ambitious and entrepreneurial nature of the Millenials remain of relevant concern. One significant pattern that emerges through analysis of conflict is the diminishing financial motivation of each subsequent generation, likely as a result of tougher competition and the shrinking likelihood of achieving the same economic success as their predecessors. In general, management should remain cognizant of how specific generations find motivation, taking into careful consideration all four of the lenses through which to view age when strategizing methods of communication and training.
As the nature of the modern workplace sees a shift towards the necessity for collaboration, overcoming intergenerational conflict becomes more important than ever before. While the three generations in question do not drastically differ in every instance, for example, studies found that all three shared fundamental values relating to freedom, family security, and health, as well as core values like honesty and responsibility (Greenwood et al., 2008, p. 69), clashes in outlook and personal values still have important implications for overall efficiency. “Values influence attitudes which in turn affect behavior (Greenwood et al., 2008, p. 59),” all of which feed into an “atmosphere that does not bode well for effort, energy, and productivity, much less marketplace competitiveness (Zemke et al., 2000, p. 2).” It may be seen as ironic that as tensions grow and shared values diminish within society, the “sheer numbers of us and the interdependent and virtual nature of the work we do often depend on and demand collaboration and compromise” (Zemke et al., 2000, p. 13). Employers must remain aware of the necessity for healthy collaboration and facilitate it at all costs, utilizing all information at hand regarding the generational profiles of employees. By and large, as the modern workforce grows to encompass an ever-larger number of individuals, employers must acknowledge the growing need to directly address the intergenerational conflict that is almost constantly present, and yet, not often properly incorporated into management practices.
While the intergenerational conflict in the workplace remains generally unavoidable, there are techniques that can be utilized by management to try and minimize the negative effects that arise from such conflict. The first is to make sure the overall mission and goals are clarified, outlining projects to be completed, including specific tasks and responsibilities within them, all through a generational lens (Zemke et al., 2000). Team leaders must figure out how to clearly communicate to each team member, keeping in mind broad generational traits that might make this communication easier. One extremely useful concept to keep in mind is that both Generation X and Millenials have a deep appreciation for clear identification of the end result, a fact that causes them to frequently clash with Boomers when they fuss over “how something should be done as opposed to what needs to get done (Zemke et al., 2000, p. 199).” In contrast, team leaders or management might communicate to Boomers about the same idea by illustrating to them just how conflict and subsequent lapses in productivity are hurting them financially (Zemke et al., 2000). The customization of what specific facts are highlighted, consideration of individual motivating factors, and the selective emphasis of processes and goals are the first steps to success in mediating intergenerational conflict among employees.
As communication is key in any collaborative effort, and indeed, within the personnel of companies in general, management can further ease conflict by mediating discussion, adjusting systems of communication, and providing appropriate coaching and training for team members. Intergenerational conflict often arises simply because methods of communication have become clogged with negativity. Management can facilitate brainstorming, which will help to make clear what knowledge and skillset will satisfy individual roles within projects and clarify the priority of goals along the way (Zemke et al., 2000). Open discussion and detailed group planning will help leaders utilize the “fresh perspective of the young, and the wisdom of more experienced workers (Tolbize, 2008, p. 13).” Team leaders should create an easy system of open communication, asking each team member to produce weekly accounts of what they have completed, what they will complete, and what they specifically need from each of their team members (Zemke et al., 2000). Team leaders or management must provide proper coaching and performance management for their team, being sure not only to tell team members what they did right and wrong but also what they must do next (Zemke et al., 2000). Another crucial idea to keep in mind is that training styles should be adjusted, when necessary, across generations to maximize retention of skills and knowledge (Tolbize, 2008), playing off of the Millenials desire for feedback and the Boomers fondness for the process. Employers must facilitate group work where beneficial as well as the clear division of tasks to the individuals best suited for them. Customizing areas where generational values differ and recognizing where they converge will be key to a successful mediation.
The issue of intergenerational conflict in the workplace is one that will likely continue to disrupt the inner workings of companies in the coming years, but employers need not despair, that is if they are willing to educate themselves on the intricate generational interactions at play. The presence of three generations of professionals represents three distinct patterns of behavior and attitudes attempting to function as one cohesive machine; however, with careful mediation, managers and team leaders alike can discover ways to minimize negative impacts. Intergenerational conflict can be broadly attributed to a variation in focus, the disparate need for feedback, and varying aptitude for collaboration, as well as an overall divergence in processual methods. By customizing methods of communication and facilitating an environment where each individual is acknowledged and respected, employers and leaders within companies can continue to maximize efficiency, even in the face of internal adversity. What may seem to be a problem arising from irreparable differences should perhaps instead be viewed as a failure to make light of what generations have in common. By taking steps to maximize the understanding and productivity of each individual worker, employers have the chance to regenerate feelings of camaraderie amongst employees of all generations.
Greenwood, R. A., Gibson, J. W., & Murphy Jr, E. F. (2008). An investigation of generational values in the workplace: Divergence, convergence, and implications for leadership. International Leadership Journal, 1(1), 57-77.
Pitt-Catsouphes, M., & Smyer, M. A. (2007). The 21st century multi-generational workplace. The Center on Aging and Work/Workplace Flexibility, Boston College, 9, 1-12.
Tolbize, A. (2008). Generational differences in the workplace. Research and Training Center on Community Living, University of Minnesota, 1-21.
Gibson, J. W., Greenwood, R. A., & Murphy Jr, E. F. (2009). Generational differences in the workplace: Personal values, behaviors, and popular beliefs. Journal of Diversity Management, 4(3), 1-8.
Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, xers, and nexters in your workplace. New York: AMACOM.