Boston Globe Online:

Clash of generations in workplace

GenXers, boomers seen having different life goals, values, career expectations

By Alan R. Earls, 8/10/2003

Generations have always warred with each other within the workplace. But it's doubtful whether the organizations of 1940, 1960, or even 1980 had to contend with today's generational diversity.

The workplace of 2003 includes people born before and after importantly, the workplace encompasses those who have experienced downsizing as a painful shock and those who accept it as a fact of life. Older workers may still cling to the possibility of lifetime employment with one company and its potential rewards. Younger workers tend to be largely dismissive of corporate promises, wary of commitments, and determined to forge their own long-term security.

One of many business consultants who see major differences between the baby boomers and the younger workers of Generation X is Dianne Durkin, founder and president of Loyalty Factor LLC, a management training and coaching company in Portsmouth, N.H.

"Boomers grew up in an era of opportunity with their values shaped by the landing on the moon, Woodstock, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam," said Durkin. At work, Durkin said, they tend to be very driven and can be "workaholic." She half-jokingly credits them with inventing the 60-hour work week and adds that boomers view work as a form of self- fulfillment: They live to work.

According to Durkin, because boomers were pushed toward higher education and toward out-achieving their parents they are optimistic and team-oriented. What's more, they love personal gratification and consumption - the lattes they order at Starbucks, adventure vacations, powerful SUVs and (for some) pricey organic food. The "bourgeois bohemians" - "Bobos," as writer David Brooks called them - symbolize the passions and follies of the boomer generation.

By contrast, Durkin said, GenXers work to live. Their values were shaped by the aftermath of Watergate, the Challenger disaster, terrorism, and the rise of the personal computer. They have a shorter attention span than other generations and they are accustomed to instant gratification, learned from the immediacy of the Internet but which they have come to expect in other aspects of their lives.

Unlike boomers, Durkin said, Xers value autonomy, dislike supervision, and are determined to get a better balance of work life and home life. "They will work hard but they insist on time off for personal things," she said.

Durkin and others said GenXers are not inclined to practice political correctness and activism. Instead, they focus on what's practical and achievable.

What's more, Xers aren't afraid to rock the boat. Durkin said. "They will have no problem telling the company president what they think should be done - and they won't stay in a job if they don't think they are learning and growing."

The demographic division in the workplace draws on a full palette of generations. These range from what demographers often call "the veterans" - those in their late 50s or older - to Generation Y - workers just now entering the work force and generally defined as having been born after 1980. However, the most significant fault line may divide the baby boom generation of 76 million and the slightly smaller Generation X that followed it.

Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, still buy into the system, even though they were raised on rock 'n' roll and rebellion. GenXers, born between 1965 and the late 1970s, are more interested in their own autonomy, irritating some boomers who see them as disloyal and work-averse.

Like most sociological shorthand, these generational terms have their fans and their critics.

On the side of the differences have been authors like Kathy and Rick Hicks, who in 1999 published "Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers: Understanding the Generational Differences That Divide Us," and the New Haven-based consultant Bruce Tulgan, whose "Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent" first appeared in 1995.

Others minimize the chasm between the generations. For instance, Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization working to advance women in business, surveyed members of Generation X late in 2001 in a report titled "The Next Generation: Today's Professionals, Tomorrow's Leaders." The group concluded that both men and women in Generation X share the work motivation of earlier generations. However, the younger generation strongly expressed preferences for telecommuting and casual work attire.

Despite "high levels of company loyalty," the authors said, GenX professionals expect more from their employers, particularly in managing work and personal commitment.

Judy Casey, director of the New England Work-Family Association and director of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, sees some differences among the generations but warns that the evidence is almost all anecdotal. "We all know that people are shaped by their generation but to what extent that drives workplace behavior is still not clear," she said.

In fact, to remedy that knowledge gap she is currently seeking funding for a study of generational workplace differences. She said the years ahead will be particularly interesting - and challenging - for organizations as more and more people delay retirement. That, she said, will mean an unprecedented span of generations sharing the same work environment. "It will be more and more common for 30-year-olds to be managing people in their 50s, 60s, or 70s," she said.

Furthermore, Casey said old assumptions about the life cycle don't work anymore. "People are starting families at all different ages now and starting second and third careers at different periods in their lives," she said. And, she admitted, even small differences in when people entered the job market - relative, say, to recessions or expansions - could significantly alter their relationship to work. What's more, personal experiences probably weigh at least as heavily on behavior as generational experiences.

Wilfred Calmas, a Boston-based business consultant and coach, said the striking similarities among individuals trump the superficial differences between the generations. "In 99 percent of the cases, career failures are due to some kind of force within the psyche of the individual," he said.

"We all want to get better at what we do," said Calmas. "The generational differences are not important."

Coping tips for GenXers, boomers

Regardless of which generation you belong to, Len Vairo, a managing director at Christian & Timbers, a national recruiting firm with offices in Burlington, said there are strategies that can help ensure your survival in an organization dominated by values or styles of work you don't appreciate.

"You can't out work a workaholic boss," he said. And even if you do you probably won't get credit for it. So, Vairo suggests finding a way to complement the capabilities of an organization or a supervisor. If the person is a pure Type A, you can perhaps supply the intellectual component needed to make the team stronger. Or it may be that you can supply valuable business contacts to supplement the knowledge and skills of the team.

And, there's always the possibility of change. Vairo said he has seen many examples of GenXers reluctant to be drawn into workaholic lifestyles. However, he added, "once they get their first shot at management many of them find themselves becoming workaholic, too."

However, Carolyn Martin, dean of faculty at author Bruce Tulgan's consulting firm, Rainmaker Thinking Inc., said the last 15 years of turmoil in business have shaped the GenXers and are reshaping boomers.

Companies and GenXers both say they want things done faster, smarter, and better. "We started out categorizing people by generation but now we look at whether people are making this transition," she said. The key, she said, is for managers to come to employees with a very clear idea of what they need done and ready to negotiate in an imaginative way to provide the right incentive.

"Boomers have to throw out the assumptions that they've learned and start thinking in terms of what's possible," she said.


This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 8/10/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.