Generation Gaps in the Workplace

Just about any place you work these days, you’ll hear about a common challenge: conflict between the “older” versus the “younger” employees. But the problem isn’t really that simple. Actually, there currently are four generations in the workplace — each with its own background, values, beliefs and characteristics.


Born between 1930 and 1945, this generation gets its name from the fact that they grew up with the radio as the most common form of home entertainment. They mowed the lawn with a push mower, listened to Ricky Nelson on the radio, knew how to entertain themselves without a television and remember the first TVs as being black and white.

They had heroes to admire; many fought in World War II. Communism was the enemy. They tend to be fiscally prudent, conservative and very loyal to their employers and employees. They survived the Great Depression of the early 1930s, making it easy to understand their emphasis on job security as well as the fact that job-hopping is not a concept they embrace. If they use a computer, their biggest fear is that they’ll break it.


This generation was born between 1946 and 1964. They knew Elvis before he wore sequins, used a typewriter to write their term papers, watched Leave It to Beaver on television, remember Woodstock, listened to the Beatles and watched man’s first trip to the moon.

Boomers have witnessed several revolutions in America — from the advent of the sexual revolution, with women gaining access to “the pill,” to the blossoming of the civil rights movement. Many fought in — or protested — the Vietnam War. They were told by their parents that they could have anything they dreamed of and that getting a college education was the vehicle to a better lifestyle. They are often stereotyped as aging flower children from the ’60s who sold out to become the “suits” of the ’80s, becoming ambitious and materialistic. They believe heartily in the American Dream and maintain (at least some of the time) that they can “have it all.”


Born between 1965 and 1976, this generation rode backwards in a station wagon on family trips, know who shot J.R. on television, used a rotary phone, actually played records and recall the advent of Atari, ET and the first Star Wars movie. They’ve seen technology emerge and grow from records to eight-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and, of course, computers.

They’ve watched the Internet take off and witnessed the dawn of voice mail, Walkmans, beepers, cell phones, PDAs, Blackberries and laptops. Most own one computer, some two or three. They were the original “latchkey” kids and watched their parents get “let go” from the corporations they had been so loyal to. They learned that politics never solved anything (and often made things worse), and grew up scared because of the threat of nuclear war, terrorist attacks, AIDS and Watergate. They see no point in “paying dues” to get ahead and reject the notion that people should sacrifice their lives to their work.


People born between 1977 and 1991, Generation Y is often referred to as “Generation X on steroids.” Three times more numerous than the Gen Xers, they grew up with similar circumstances to Generation X (dual-income parents, day care, divorce) but were subjected to different parenting styles. For discipline, spankings were viewed as child abuse, and timeouts were in. Parents sought to protect their children from the world’s pitfalls.

This generation has at least thought about piercing something besides their ears, has always known about cable TV and remote controls, used a computer about the time they learned to read, grown up on video games and has always made popcorn in a microwave. They are very conscious of preserving our environment, are committed to social causes, are very accepting of every form of diversity (racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, etc.) and express themselves creatively in their appearance (body jewelry, brightly colored hair, etc.) They tend to be much more against alcohol, drugs and premarital sex than either Boomers or Gen Xers. Their No. 1 concern is personal safety (think school shootings and terrorism).

With such variety of life experiences, is it any wonder that the generations have difficulty understanding one another — at work or anywhere else?

There are books written about what each generation needs to understand about the others (my favorite is Bridging the Generation Gap by Gravett and Throckmorton), but the starting place for resolving generation-inspired conflict is to understand that each one of us is a product to some extent of how we were parented and, even more importantly, of what was going on in the world while we were growing up.

Considering these factors can give us a starting place to understand one another’s values and viewpoints without making anyone “wrong.”

Author: Judi Craig

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