How Generation Gaps Work

By: Dave Roos
Man playing with young children.
Generation gaps make sense: If you're about 50 years apart in age, you're bound to see the world a little differently.
Blend Images/Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz/Getty Images

It all started in the 1960s, the decade of revolutionary change that reshaped the Western world's attitudes about war, sex, religion and civil rights. The societal upheaval of the 1960s was ignited and fueled almost exclusively by the young. "Don't trust anyone over 30," was the motto of the hippie counterculture. It represented a clear sign that a serious ideological rift had formed between the Baby Boomer kids and their Depression-era parents. Social scientists gave it a name: the generation gap.

Generation gaps form when two age groups begin to see the world from significantly different perspectives. Generation gaps existed long before the 1960s -- in the early 19th century, political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville commented, "Among democratic nations, each generation is a new people." But they tend to emerge with greater frequency as the rate of societal change increases [source: Howe and Strauss]. For example, in the 1800s, chances were that your father's world looked a lot like your own. In the 21st century, even a short span of 20 years can bring radical changes in technology (and the way we use it), moral and religious beliefs, and attitudes about education, work, friends and family life.


Longer life spans also increase the prevalence of generation gaps. For babies born in 1920, life expectancy in the United States was 56.4 years [source: Shrethsa]. For babies born in 2009, it's 78.7 years [source: World Bank]. Longer life spans mean that more generations are living and working simultaneously. That means that for the first time in history, there are four distinct generations (and four generation gaps) in the workplace [source: Hammill]. Here is a list of the current generations:

  • Veterans (born 1922-1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980)
  • Generation Y (born 1981-2000) [source: Hammill].

Different generations not only have their own distinct worldview, but their own way of working and preferred methods of communication (veterans appreciate a phone call; Generation Y won't respond to anything but a text). Business managers have their hands full trying to negotiate the psycho-social quirks of four different generations. In the next section, we'll look at how the characteristics of each generation play out in the workplace.


Generation Gaps in the Workplace

There are four distinct generations in the workplace, each with its own worldview and its own work ethic. Some are fiercely loyal to the company, while others just want a steady paycheck. Here is a quick breakdown of each generation's attitude toward work, management style and preferred methods of communication:

  • Veterans (born 1922-1945) When it comes to work, the company comes first. The veteran believes in starting at the bottom, paying dues, and working your way up through experience and seniority. The best education is on-the-job training. The veteran's management style is firm and direct, and he or she prefers face-to-face or phone communication.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) Baby boomers have a strong work ethic, though they may not be as loyal to one company. They believe strongly in education, but that on-the-job experience trumps a fancy college degree. When it comes to management, boomers are all about meetings; employees should feel part of a team and consider annual progress reports a great source of feedback. Boomers are available by phone 24/7. They always check and leave voicemail messages, check e-mail a couple times a day and always responds by the end of the day (it's only polite).
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980) Education and creativity count for something with Generation X; you shouldn't have to start at the bottom if you have fresh ideas. Generation Xers have never understood why they should care about company "traditions." They work hard for the company, but wouldn't hesitate to switch jobs if a better offer comes along. Work-life balance is important to them. Generation Xers believe that people will produce the best results if they're given the freedom to be creative. They like explaining the reasoning behind their decisions; this motivates employees in a way that they can understand. When it comes to communication, e-mail is king.
  • Generation Y (born 1981-2000) Generation Y members believe they have some great ideas (at least that's what they've been told), so they just want to do their thing and the results will follow. They like their workplaces just fine -- until they get bored. Working from home is as good as the office as long as work gets done. Management is a snap -- everyone simply checks in with the online project management tool and updates his or her status. Texting is best if you want to get in touch with a Generation Y member. These people may never check voicemails or leave them -- in fact, they're perfectly OK with never meeting a colleague in person.

Now let's look at some of the problems that can arise when generation gaps become obstacles to workplace communication and productivity.


Difficulty of the Generation Gap

Business meeting.
Could you imagine your boss doing this? If not, you may be dealing with generation gaps at your workplace.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Welcome to the 9 a.m. Monday sales meeting at XYZ Corp. The Baby Boomer sales manager arrives early wearing his standard jacket and tie and carrying his semi-ironic "World's Best Boss" coffee mug. He checks his e-mail on his Dell laptop while he waits for the others to arrive. There's a message from the Veteran-era CEO sent at 4:15 a.m. (man, that guy gets up early) asking about sales figures from March. The Boomer manager knows that the CEO expects to have those figures -- or at least a response -- when he walks in the door this morning.

The Generation X saleswoman shows up with her Starbucks in hand, dressed in her usual jeans and a T-shirt (most sales are done over the phone nowadays). She's on her cell, giving instructions to her husband, who's staying home with the baby for a couple of months. When she's off the phone, the Boomer manager starts to chat with her about her weekend, but she quickly pops open her MacBook and says she has to take care of some e-mails. The Boomer silently wonders if any of them are the three unanswered messages he sent to her last week.


Both of their cell phones (his: Blackberry; hers: iPhone) vibrate with an incoming text message. It's the new guy, a Generation Y kid straight out of college, asking if it's all right if he does the meeting via Skype. He ended up spending the weekend at a friend's place in New York and thought he could work remotely today and catch a flight back tonight.

Sound familiar? According to a recent survey, 70 percent of older workers are dismissive of younger worker's abilities, and 50 percent of younger workers feel like the old guys are out of touch [source: Williams]. Generation Y is emerging as everyone's favorite workplace complaint. Over half of employers over 35 say that Generation Y has a harder time taking direction than any other generation of worker [source Acebel Rousseau]. Additional gripes about Generation Y include:

  • Entitlement -- They've been given a trophy for every meaningless task and think they deserve praise at every turn.
  • Too much flexibility -- They want to be able to work from home, take days off, and come in at odd hours, as long as they get the work done.
  • Relationships over loyalty -- They couldn't care less about the company, but will work hard for people who they consider "friends." Managers must walk the fine line between friend and boss.
  • Oversharing -- In the Facebook/Twitter age, the line between personal and professional is nonexistent, and some members of Generation Y have no qualms about posting work-related information on social networking sites. [source: Gurchiek]

But all is not lost. Keep reading for some expert tips on bridging the generational divides in the workplace.


Bridging Generation Gaps

In the ideal intergenerational workplace, every team member brings the best qualities of his or her generation to increase overall productivity, improve creativity and boost morale. While it's too much to expect generation gaps to close overnight, there are some proven managerial techniques for building bridges across the generational divide.

One proven method is to launch official mentoring programs across the generations [source: Williams]. Both Baby Boomers and Generation Y put a high value on relationships, which is not surprising, since most Gen Yers are sons and daughters of "helicopter parent" Boomers. Boomers want the team to feel like a "family" and Generation Y wants to be surrounded by "friends." By becoming a mentor, the Boomer can capitalize on her experience (something she prizes) while the Gen Yer can get constant feedback about his ideas from someone he trusts (something he prizes).


A successful intergenerational workplace also needs to strike a balance between structure and independence. A clear leadership structure will satisfy the old-school expectations of the Veterans and Boomers while giving the Gen Xers and Yers a sense of authority they secretly crave. After that leadership structure is in place, break down all barriers of accessibility [source: Acebel Rousseau]. Younger generations need continuous feedback from their managers and want to know that they can knock on the CEO's door if they have a question.

Once a younger worker has been given an assignment, that worker should have the freedom and independence to work on it on his or her own time. Since younger workers crave feedback, older managers can be confident that they'll get updates from the workers soon enough.

One general rule for bridging generation gaps in the workplace is to drop the old rules altogether. Older workers especially need to forget about the established rules of communications that were seemingly written in stone: "Always return a phone call." "Always send a thank you note." "Always be available for the boss." Don't be offended when a co-worker breaks one of these "rules," because chances are he or she didn't know the rule existed [source: D'Adonno].

Along those same lines, get over the idea of fairness. A lot of older workers complain that the younger generations are coddled and haven't "paid their dues." Fairness is not as important as building successful workplace relationships in which everybody does his or her job better [source: Bloomberg Businessweek].

In the end, building a solid bridge requires that both sides meet each other halfway. If the older worker prefers phone calls and the younger workers texts, then compromise over e-mail. If the Boomer loves daily meetings and the Gen Yer likes to work from home three days a week, then sign up for Web conferencing. When everybody gets something he or she wants, everybody wins.

For lots more information on workplace dynamics, head to the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Acebel Rousseau, Millie. Miami Herald. "Closing the workplace generational gap." February 28, 2008 wor.html#ixzz1Pfj1SD00
  • Bloomberg Businessweek. "Bridging the Generation Gap." September 17, 2007
  • D'Adonno, Beth. Today's Officer. "Bridging the Generation Gap." September 2004
  • Gurchiek, Kathy. Society for Human Resource Management. "Gen Y Poses Unique Management Challenges." November 10, 2009
  • Hammill, Greg. FDU Magazine. "Mixing and Managing Four Generations of Employees." Winter/Spring 2005
  • Howe, Neil and Strauss, William. The Atlantic. "The New Generation Gap." December 1992
  • Shrestha, Laura B. CRS Report for Congress. "Life Expectancy in the United States." August 16, 2006
  • Williams, Ray. Psychology Today. "Why Are You Not Like Me? The Generational Gap in the Workplace." September 8, 2009
  • World Bank. "Life expectancy"