Boomer or slacker, we're all the same

2007

When it comes to generational differences in the workplace, conventional wisdom has it that differences between baby boomer management, slacker Gen X-ers and the plain-incomprehensible Gen-Ys amount to a chasm that is tearing workplaces apart.

But according to a new book by Jennifer Deal, a research scientist with the Center for Creative Leadership, this gulf in values between older and younger people is a myth.

In fact, she argues, all generations have similar values. And the common denominator between them all is that family matters most.

The conventional shorthand for the four generations that now share the world's workplaces goes something like this: the Silent Generation values hard work; Baby Boomers value loyalty; Generation X values work-life balance; and Generation Y (today's 20-somethings), values innovation and change – when you can get them turn their iPods off, that is.

Or, if you prefer, the silents are fossilized, the boomers are narcissistic, the Gen Xers are slackers and the Gen Yers are even more narcissistic than the boomers.

But Deal refutes this. Her contention is that these disparate generations value essentially the same things. And adding weight to her myth-busting thesis, her findings are based on seven years of research in which she surveyed more than 3,000 corporate leaders.

"Our research shows that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don't cast much of a shadow," Deal said.

"Everyone wants to be able to trust their supervisors, no one really likes change, we all like feedback and the number of hours you put in at work depends more on your level in the organization than on your age."

Similarly, she says, everyone wants respect.

"We often hear that that younger people are disrespectful of older employees and those in authority. We also hear complaints that older people show no respect for younger talent and ideas. Everyone wants respect, but the generations don't define it in the same way."

In the study, she explained, older individuals talked about respect in terms of "giving my opinions the weight I believe they deserve," and younger respondents characterized respect as "listen to me, pay attention to what I have to say."

The research also highlights that while there is plenty of common ground among the generations, organizations tend to make the same mistakes year-in, year-out when it comes to how they attract, manage, retain and develop employees of all generations.

For example, for all the preconceptions of how different generations relate to organizational hierarchies, they do not have notably different expectations of their leaders. Above all else, people want leaders they can trust.

Similarly, nobody really likes change. The stereotype is that older people resist change while younger people embrace it. These assumptions don't stand up under the research, which found that people from all generations are uncomfortable with change.

Resistance to change has nothing to do with age, she says. Rather, it has to do with how much you stand to gain or lose as a result of the change.

Loyalty is another stick often used to beat the younger generation with. Instead, says Deal, it depends on context. Younger generations are not necessarily less loyal than older workers. The amount of time a worker puts in each day has more to do with his or her level in the organization than with age. The higher the level, the more hours worked.

But everyone – regardless of their level in an organization - wants to learn. Learning and development were among the issues brought up most frequently by people of all generations. Equally, everyone likes feedback to know how they are doing and wants to learn how to do better.

Clearly, then, people of different ages see the world in different ways. But Deal argues that this is not the primary reason for generational conflict. Instead, we need to look at power - who wields it and who wants it. "The so-called generation gap is, in large part, the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding, fuelled by common insecurities and the desire for clout," Deal concludes.

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