How Generation Gaps Work

Generation gaps make sense: If you're about 50 years apart in age, you're bound to see the world a little differently.
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.