Mind the (generation) gap

Feb 25 2008 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

At the ripe age of 46 and a half I am feeling very old. Some of that is having a teenager, which as your own parents will tell you ages you faster than sunbathing in a microwave. More to the point, as a manager I am feeling almost as old and irrelevant.

Both on this site and over at The Cranky Middle Manager Show there has been a lot of talk about the different generations in the workplace.

But recent events - one world shaking and the other just shaking my world - have convinced me there's been a seismic change in ways I'd never imagined. Companies and their managers that understand what's going on will have a much better time of it.

The major event is the current US election where, depending on who you talk to, the presidential election will include either a woman or an African American. (Technically the election will include a lot more people but I'm talking about the people running).

This is a big deal. My wife is beside herself and driving me crazy with her rabid support for Hillary and her distress at the current state of her campaign. My daughter couldn't care less, which brings me to the second event. Stick with me, there's a management lesson to be learned here.

My 14 year old daughter and her cheerleader friends were in my living room working on a routine. They had very short time to get everyone up to speed but there was only a third of the team present. What did they do?

Well, one downloaded and edited the music on her laptop while the others worked on the moves. As they invented new moves, one recorded it on her cell phone. Then they downloaded it to YouTube and text messaged their friends and told them to check it out before practice tomorrow

I stared at them like they'd just invented fire and angered the gods.

And herein lies the connection and the management lesson.

When my wife, who is a little older than I am, (I say that not to be cruel, there's an historical point here) was a little girl, women were perceived as non-players in the corporate workplace and they still had legally mandated separate water fountains for whites and "coloreds" in the town where she grew up.

So the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman matters greatly to her. It represents her own struggles for place and respect. She uses email, kind of, but is constantly afraid if she does something to the computer a mushroom cloud will appear over her monitor and I'll yell at her.

My daughter has never lived in a world without women of authority in the workplace. Not only is legal segregation something she's never experienced, but over a quarter of kids in major American cities like Los Angeles are classified as "mixed race" of some combination.

Technology is part of her world - it's part of everything she does and she understands how it makes her world spin. In fact it's the lack of technology that is a problem. I highly recommend making teenagers watch television without a remote if you want to see a portrait in shaking, spluttering frustration.

Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck between two generations in my own house, but going to work offers no sanctuary. For the first time in over 40 years, the workplace contains people with two very different sets of experiences. As managers we're in the middle of both the age and technology gap, and that is the point (I told you I'd get there).

One group of workers is working with older, sometimes outdated but sometimes proven, assumptions and who understand how we got to this point in our lives and the company's history. They know what mistakes have been made and remembers the way you solved that problem back in '87. How different can 2008 be, right?

The other group doesn't understand why the rules are what they are or why some people are "protected" when others aren't and they don't have the same assumptions about how to approach the marketplace. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it's just ignorance. Can you tell the difference?

One group thinks technology, while nice, is often a necessary evil and not the cure for everything. The other can think of 17 ways to do any task as long as the network is working and the Red Bull supply holds up . Some of those answers are not even in the rest of the group's vocabulary.

You and I get to keep the two groups talking to each other and reaching for the same goals. As managers, it's our job to not only leverage the best thinking of each group to find new answers, but to find ways to help the groups understand each other.

The possibilities are endless. Imagine someone with both networking skills and, well, networking skills. That's the new Grail we managers quest for. I won't depress you with stories of what happened to the original Grail questors because this one is actually within our grasps.

These generational differences mean that just as the US will not be the same after this election no matter how it turns out (and don't count out the senior citizen white male as the final winner just yet, their win-loss record is impressive) , the workplace won't be the same ever again, either.

So it's our job to mind the managerial generation gap.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments for more than 20 years. In 2016, he merged with The Kevin Eikenberry Group, to create The Remote Leadership Institute, and now serves as Master Trainer and Coach to the Kevin Eikenberry Group. Wayne is also is the author of more than 15 books, including The Long-Distance Teammate and The Long-Distance Team.

Older Comments

Younger people have always been naive, idealistic, and arrogant enough to assume that the rules are arbitrary just because they weren't involved in the decision to create them.

What is also 'not new' and 'not news' is that managing multiple generations is challenging. It seems curiously naive and slightly arrogant for so many current middle managers to talk like they're the first who have ever encountered this phenomenon, and that obviously no previous generation's solutions would work for us because 'they wouldn't understand'.

Have we really gained any wisdom for all of our generation gap??



This is a great article and don't feel old! I'm 43 with a 12 year old and I'm the wife too who is panicking at Hillary's losing momentum.

I think your point of bridging and leveraging these two groups is so important and valuable.

Nettie Hartsock

Wayne -

Great, thought-provoking article. I see all the same generational stuff happening with my clients and in my family. I think there are two things that make the generation gap situation right now particularly fascinating. The first is - as you point out - technology. The ways in which the generations understand and use technology create disconnects around work, relationship, and communication that are bigger than we even know (I loved your line about inventing fire and angering the gods!)

The other thing that's odd about this generation gap is that it is, in some ways, so much LESS than for previous generations. Here's what I mean: my kids (early 20s), their friends, and I (mid 50s) have very similar attitudes and preferences about a wide variety of things large and small: morality, love, music, friendship, politics, clothing, movies, the environment, etc. I definitely couldn't have said that about myself and my parents in the 60s, even though we had a very good relationship for the time.

So the combination of huge difference and big similarities is perhaps unique and unprecedented...

Let the games begin!

Thanks, as always, for your point of view --

warmly, Erika

Erika Andersen http://thesimplestthing.typepad.com/erikas_blog

I am right there with you Wayne! Older spouse (10 months), teenage daughter and at least with me, an utter fascination with those in Gen X & Y who are forging out a little room on the street corner with ingenuity, technology and will.

I love the living room scene with the cheerleaders. I think I've lived it a million times myself :-)

dave Tampa, FL

Another brief comment on that Gap.... 'professional' women now are having babies much later into their careers than they did when that happened to me. (At 26 I was regarded, way back in 1974, just before the UK Sex Discrimination Act came into force, as really old to become a first time mother!)

There are many upshots of this differential in age at first child, but one of them is that women simply don't encounter the glass ceiling as early as they used to.

My suspicion is that this has led to many not realising for quite a long time that there really ARE still gendered differences in probably professional outcome; and also that by the time they do realise, it's too late. But at least by then today's professionally trained women have experience and skills galore.

The only thing to do nowadays, given that, is pick up one's professional tool kit and go independent - which explains why women senior directors are actually diminishing in numbers, at least in the UK.

I read recently of Gender Fatigue (see London Business School research papers) - a state where sexism and feminist issues have once again been labelled as personal, because the belief is that the structural obstacles have been removed.

All I can say, along with your other Hillary supporters, is Oh No They Haven't, not completely and not yet.


Hilary Burrage UK, England

Gosh! that does sound like an awesome balancing act! And u do draw the parallel very well. Came here from Gautam Ghosh's carnival. And this post was a treat!