News Commentary and Research

Generational Conflict in the Workplace, the Issues Run Deep

by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research

Mixing workers from different generations can be like mixing volatile chemicals in a lab.  Combine hierarchically minded Baby Boomers intent on building one stellar career with techno-saavy Millennials who believe in having two or three “careers” running in tandem, and you never know when you might witness an explosion.

Turbulence across generations is not new, nor is it particularly new to the workplace. But Pew Research suggests that as Traditionalists (born roughly 1900 to 1945) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) achieve ever-greater health and longevity, the workforce generation clash grows. While Boomers and even some Traditionalists seek the seniority and rewards they believe they’ve earned for their long and loyal service, Generation X (born 1965 to 1980) struggles to find its own place in the pecking order. Finally, Millennials (born 1980 to 2000) enter the fray, bringing leaps in technology with them.

Millennials and Generation Xers are more racially and culturally blended than preceding age groups.  Pew Research reports that only 60% of  Millennials and Gen Xers are non-Hispanic whites, compared to 73% of Baby Boomers and 80% of Traditionalists. These more ethnically diverse younger generations appear more comfortable with the global, multinational nature of the world in which we live–proficient with the technology that supports global enterprise, and less fazed by seeing burkas in the workplace, sampling fusion cuisines, or joining an overseas conference call in the middle of the night.

With their contemporary outlook, Millennials and Gen Xers seem poised to take positions of power in the workplace. Yet Traditionalists and especially Boomers hold high appeal for employers. Boomers are far more likely to cite a “strong work ethic” as a defining characteristic of their generation; by contrast, “work ethic” does not even make Millennials’ top five list of self-defining traits (“technology use” tops their list, followed by an interest in “music/culture”). “Respectful,” too, is high on the list of Boomer traits that do not register among Millennials.

Generational inclusion is a huge challenge for employers who want to leverage differences productively. The Boomer and Millennial generations are roughly similar in size, and the iconic traits of both seem larger than life–to each other, and to the Gen Xers who are not sure when, or even if, they will have their chance to shine. For Boomers, it can be additionally painful to report to a younger person—and even more painful to acknowledge that the young boss knows more about technology than they do. Millennials, meanwhile, struggle with the concept of “paying their dues” and can be disinclined to seek the counsel of their elders.

In the midst of these potentially volative differences, guidance is needed. What is your organization’s leadership doing to help workers of different ages benefit from each other’s differences?

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