Intergenerational conflict threatens workplace harmony

Aug 01 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Intergenerational conflict is threatening to upset the harmony of U.S. workplaces as the gulf widens between baby boomer management and a younger generation with very different values, motives and goals.

Employers are finding it harder to understand and motivate younger workers, according to global management consulting firm Novations/J. Howard & Associates.

"The latest generation to enter the workforce is singularly disengaged and getting them motivated is now one of management's most urgent challenges," said Novations/J. Howard CEO, Mike Hyter.

The crux of the problem, Hyter argued, is that younger employees have sharply different values and goals than preceding generations.

"Newer employees, those under 30, seem to reject the 'corporate system' and have little interest in a lifetime career, and even less in organisation loyalty. Top management doesn't seem to grasp the values of younger workers or know how to leverage their knowledge.

What's more, he added, traditional motivators such as money or authority no longer hold much sway among younger workers.

Certain behaviours are typical of today's younger workers, said Hyter. "They change jobs at the first sign of discomfort, or blow all their money on a vacation. They look for self-happiness, not self-sacrifice, and certainly not if the sacrifice is supposed to be for the company."

But most difficult for employers to accept is that they do not view their job or organisation as a source of their happiness. "For them, a job is disposable," Hyter said.

A key insight into the problem, Hyter believes, is to recognise that management tends to be a generation older and younger employees are their figurative children.

"Management has to deal with a kind of generation gap, one that's likely to get worse before getting better.

"More than 15 percent of today's employees are under 25, three-fifths are under 45, but baby boomers dominate top management.

"The gap isn't a passing problem and unless management deals with it effectively intergenerational conflict will undermine organisational cohesion and job performance."

But as Hyter pointed out, management should also realise that younger workers' perspective has been shaped by the often-negative corporate experience of their parents.

"Many saw their father or mother used by the corporation and then discarded. Younger people have seen the cost to their parents' livelihood and emotional well-being, and are determined not to get caught in the same trap. So they put their own happiness and contentment first."

The workplace generation gap, according to Hyter, is a variant of the classic organisational diversity challenge:

"How does management mobilize the human assets in an organisation when everyone's motivating factors are different? How does management deal with everyone as individuals and align their values with corporate objectives?"

Hyter believes diversity is no longer an issue of race, ethnicity and gender. "We now recognise that diversity has many faces. The issues, values, motives and goals of employees are also very diverse, so the workplace solutions have to be even more creative."