Would you rather be right or be happy? This timeless question sums up real differences in the workplace today that are causing conflicts between the three prominent generations — Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y (aka Millennials). There are real shifts in how we lead organizations, higher turnover rate, and shifting expectations affecting how our companies and/or teams perform. Entrepreneurism is enjoying some of its highest rates in decades, and our young Gen Y's are entering the workforce as the best educated generation in our history. So, where is the conflict?
Understanding the events and characteristics that help define the generations can help us reduce the conflict and better leverage the strengths of our workforce. Discussing generational stereotypes are generalizations — and not all the attributes in a generation define any individual. They are meant for awareness, not formulaic actions. While geographic, ethnic, and religious factors also help shape us, there are trends within the age groups that are visibly playing out in the workplace.
Much of it lies in how we answer the above question. In general, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) generally answer the question as "happy." Raised in one of the most prosperous periods in our history, Boomers rebelled against their parents' view that work was a duty and the reason to live. Instead, the Boomers believe that work is only the means to the reason for life. The reason for living that Boomers pursue is fun or play. Boomers work for vacations, toys, hobbies — things outside the office. Additionally, Boomers also came of age during one of the greatest periods of conflict — the late 1960s. The social upheaval and activism surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam led Boomers to work in teams and to focus on "everyone getting along" over "being right." These events shaped their generation, and has played out in the workplace. Boomers often make decisions in teams (or by committee), and want to ensure the team is "okay with the change" before making it.
In contrast, Gen X (born between 1965 and 1981) would rather be "right." Raised in the shadow of Watergate, as well the promises from 1960s Boomers of peace that instead led way to the selfishness of the 1980s, many Gen X-ers harbor real distrust and anger towards the Boomers that has created friction in the office. Many Gen X's grew up in single-income or dual-working parent households, and had to raise themselves and their siblings during the day. It created a fierce independence and skepticism that has led Gen X'ers to focus on results. X'ers would rather make the best decision once, move quickly on implementing the decision. Feelings are often an afterthought. The real area of conflict between X-ers who are moving into leadership roles in organization and the Boomers, who are already there, is that X-ers judge people on "walking their talk." If a leader does not live what they proclaim, X-ers will argue, rebel, and fight to get them to do so.
Our youngest workers, Gen Y, answer the question the same as the Boomers — "happy." But, they also place a high value on "walking the talk." This has created an interesting dynamic between these three generations. Gen Y (born between 1982 and 2002) love working in teams; they learn new skills faster than any generation to date, and they live to "learn." Throughout their childhood, they were pushed to participate in multiple sports, activities, and hobbies. Told to learn constantly and to find a job they "love," Gen Y seeks meaning in their lives. One of their primary frustrations with Gen X is that they "don't know how to have fun" &mdash just chill. Gen Y judges the Boomers based on "doing what you say," and pursuing a set of values and principle in your life — they will quit a job without notice if they believe the company does not deliver on its promises. Both Boomers and Gen X have issues with Gen Y — the former views Gen Y often as young upstarts who want to be promoted immediately, and want all the rewards that took the Boomers years to attain. Gen X wants Gen Y to "just do what I say" and not ask "why" all the time — get the work (results) done first, then you can chill out with everyone.
So, what does all this mean? First, you have to accept there are differences — which can also be strengths. Today, Boomers comprise 32 percent of our workforce, Gen X 42 percent, and Gen Y 26 percent. For your team or company — start with a dialogue. Ask your team members what they see as the strengths and frustrations between their generations. Much of the issues revolve around values and the different interpretation of values. Focus on what is important to the team and find agreement across your generations. Share experiences that shaped the different perspectives towards a generation — because there are few Gen Y's who really understand what it was like growing up the 1950's and 1960's — and those events did shape how Boomers view the world. Lastly, find opportunities to work together by focusing on what is best for the organization instead of how I think it should be done. Sometimes, it is better for the company to be happy. And sometimes we need to be right.