When Generations Collide:
Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the
Generational Puzzle at Work
by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman

The generation gap can be a source of many communication failures in the workplace. When Generations Collide looks to analyze and understand the differences between the generations and how they view issues and tasks differently because of different value systems and life experiences. The authors then offer solutions to frictions that arise at work due to generational differences.

Which of the following is important for a Baby Boomer (Born 1946-1964)?

  • Build parallel careers
  • Build a stellar career
  • Build a legacy
  • Build a portable career

Which of the following is important to Generation Xers (Born 1965-1980)?

  • Give me balance now, not when Iím sixty-five!
  • Support me in shifting the balance
  • Help me balance everyone else and find meaning myself
  • Work isnít everything; flexibility to balance my activities

Which of the following feedback do Millennials (Born 1981-1999) prefer?

  • Sorry to interrupt, but how am I doing?
  • Once a year, with lots of documentation
  • No news is good news
  • Feedback whenever I want it at the push of a button

Answers Explained:

ClashPoint TM around Career Goals

Traditionalist (Born 1900-1945): Build a legacy.

Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964): Build a stellar career.

Generation Xers (Born 1965-1980): Build a portable career.

Millennials (Born 1981-1999): Build parallel careers.

Loyal to a fault, Traditionalists expected to build a lifetime career with one employer, or at least in a single field, and to make a lasting contribution. Listening to the tick of the career clock, Baby Boomers find themselves questioning where theyíve been and where theyíre going. Yet the idea of having a stellar career is still utmost in the minds of many. Intent on looking for career security rather than job security, Generation Xers believe it is critical to build a repertoire of skills and experiences they can take with them if they need to. Millennials, who are just beginning to enter the workforce, have grown up multi-tasking, and believe that they will be able to pursue more than one line of work at the same time.

Once a manager has the different generationsí goals in mind, it is critical to provide different routes to reach them. In particular, Traditionalists and Boomers tend not to have their career paths laid out in nearly the amount of detail they are expected to produce for the Generation Xers they are often supervising. Generation Xers, on the other hand, are constantly pulling out their career maps to double check that they are headed in the right direction. Unless managers are always looking over these maps with their Generation X employees, they wonít be aware of the change of direction ó until someone who is paying attention comes along and steals the talented Xer away.

ClashPoint TM around Balance

Traditionalist (Born 1900-1945): Support me in shifting the balance.

Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964): Help me balance everyone else and find meaning myself.

Generation Xers (Born 1965-1980): Give me balance now, not when Iím sixty-five!

Millennials (Born 1981-1999): Work isnít everything; flexibility to balance my activities is.

Many Traditionalists have reached a point of financial and career stability where they are able to ask for more balance, yet they want the support ó and the approval ó of their employers in making the shift, including the transition to retirement. With single parent households, growing kids, aging parents, demanding jobs, and retirement looming on the horizon, Baby Boomers have realized there simply isnít enough time to go around, and are asking for help in achieving a better balance. Xers, the generation that brought balance to the forefront of todayís workplace, arenít just carefree kids anymore. They have adult concerns, including young children, and want the time and flexibility to take care of them, perhaps better than they saw their parents do. Millennials, the most over-programmed generation ever, have had the concept of balance drummed into their heads since birth by their Boomer parents.

Balance initiatives are one of the most strategic approaches for companies to attract workers, retain the workers they have, and reduce stress and distraction in their lives. But balance means something different to each of the generations so understanding different perceptions of balance is the key to success.

ClashPoint TM around Feedback:

Traditionalists (Born 1900-1945): No news is good news.

Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964): Once a year, with lots of documentation!

Generation Xers (Born 1965-1980): Sorry to interrupt, but how am I doing?

Millennials (Born 1981-1999): Feedback whenever I want it at the push of a button.

The strong, silent types who made up a generation of Traditionalist leaders werenít long on praise (they werenít even long on words), but when they said something about your performance, they meant it. That worked fine, until along came the Baby Boomers, raised with the pop psychology of the sixties that said people should open up. The Boomers forced Traditionalist bosses to sit down with them on a regular basis and let them know where they stood. That worked fine until Generation X came along, asking for instantaneous, immediate feedback. We can only imagine what the Millennials will expect.

The generations clash about feedback style as well as format ó formal vs. frank, verbal vs. written, e-mail vs. memo, on the spot vs. a set time. Put all these styles together and the feedback a Traditionalist thinks is informative and helpful can seem formal and preachy to the Boomers and the Xers. Feedback a Boomer thinks is fair and judicious can seem uptight and overly political to a Generation Xer or a Traditionalist. Feedback a Generation Xer thinks is immediate and honest can seem hasty or even inappropriate to the other generations. Clearly, the generations have not signed off on what the feedback contract is supposed to look like.


About the Authors

Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman are the founding partners of Bridgeworks. They have written for or been featured in American Demographics, The Futurist, Success, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Lancaster lives in Sonoma, California; Stillman in Tonka Bay, Minnesota.

When Generations Collide:
Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work
by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman
HarperBusiness; February 4, 2002

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