Generations Working Better Together


Face it: The generation gap these days is more like a canyon. People under 30 and people over 40 do not see eye to eye! The over-40 crowd wonders why the 25-year-old wants to be promoted to manager during his first week of employment (and leave at 4:55 p.m. daily). Meanwhile, the under-30 group believes a more seasoned coworker’s computer crashed simply because he is old.

What happened to make these generations so misunderstood? We know historically that each generation is at odds with the next, but the situation described above is an extreme version of that concept. Terms here like “millennial’s” (which sounds like 1,000-year-old infants) or Generations X and Y (seemingly indicating that algebra was somehow involved) or “baby boomers” (being the group that bombs babies?) are silly names. These labels encompass ages whose limits are tough to define. For instance, if you’re 47, despite being considered a baby boomer by many, you still belong to Generation X by some interpretations. At what point did we decide that a baby is not qualified to be part of a boom?

Research shows the real issues exist between the over-40 and under-30 groups, with the people in the middle having combined issues, traits, and opinions. It seems that each camp makes some very strong points if we listen objectively; it’s just very difficult to be objective when you are confused about the other camp.

Let’s take a look at what we know and can do something about; and let’s get honest about what we don’t know, what we did, and what we can’t change.

What makes people under 30 the way they are?

The elementary school system changed how teachers taught and rewarded for accomplishment. Teachers praised students along the way to the goal, not just when a task was completed. They stopped to celebrate along the way to success, creating motivation through little rewards rather than a big reward at the end. The teachers also promoted self-esteem by making sure every child knew he or she was cared for regardless of accomplishments. The recurring message delivered through this approach goes like this: “We love you; we know you can do it; and here is a little prize at the halfway mark to prove that to you.” This under-30 group is shaped by more than just the educational process; they also grew up in the most affluent society the world has ever known. We gave them a lot and told them they could have anything they wanted in life. Now, the under-30s are here to collect! The bottom line: We did it!

So what’s the good news about the under-30 set?

The majority of workers in this group are very capable and committed to each other. No generation has ever had the loyalty to each other that this group possesses. They work well in teams and achieve remarkable results in record time if managed effectively. It’s true that they want to do this wearing flip-flops, but the results we have seen from the well-managed are impressive.

Each generation, it seems, is uniquely suited for the evolving world it will inherit. If you watch the news these days, you hear the latest reports on celebrity rehab alumni as the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen give you the death toll in Iraq. Who can make the most of a world like that? They can! The under-30s have no problem with it; over informed and underdressed, they will navigate the busy future with ease.

What’s up with the over-40s? They seem kind of stressed out!

The over-40 group was raised to believe that working hard is proof of commitment (in reality, you can bust your butt and secretly hope the company goes under so you don’t have to quit). Also, they think working late proves that you are working hard. They think that leaving before 5 p.m. means you are not management material, while the under-30s believe that working until 8 p.m. every night just means you lack time management and life balance. The under-30s grew up in families where Mom or Dad, or both, always worked late.

Additionally, most research shows the over-40 males believe they are what they do for a living. In one interview, a 49-year-old salesman was asked who he was when he was not working. He said, “Well, mostly, I am always working. But when I’m not, I guess deep down inside I’m a relationship builder who knows how to get people to agree with me.” You mean like a salesman? He said, “Yeah, exactly!”

How can we get more productivity from the under-30 group?

Wishing people were like you is not a strategy. You have to motivate the under-30s the way they grew up being motivated. They need to be praised along the way to the goal. Celebrate the small victories on the road to success and quit telling these workers about five-year plans; their plan in five years is to have a new plan. This plan most likely will not involve you or your company (no offense). Give them short, tight deadlines and make sure your objectives are not hindered by low-tech tools. If their computer at home is twice as fast as the one at work, they have a crummy job. And most important, they want to do a good job and get a reward in the first week. Make sure you have a system that will allow that to happen. And finally, if thinking about these tips is causing you to lose the will to live, remember that our society created these people so now we have to make sure they can get the job done.

How can we get the over-40s to see we can do the job much more effectively if they would let us do it a little bit our way?

Let them know you understand the old way first. If you have an innovative new system and you fail their little quiz on the old one, you’re toast. Also, make sure you seek their counsel. If you are 27 and your coworker is 41, you need to make sure he knows that you know that his experience is an asset to your decision-making process. A 27-year-old department head with 35 direct reports who were all in their 30s and 40s did not heed this advice personally in those days, so his nickname was “Punk-boy manager.” It’s hard to wield authority with that label floating around the office.

What the over-40 group really wants from you is gratitude and respect. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!

What do we need to do to work more effectively with each other as a team?

Get over ourselves! People who grow up at different points in history have a unique experience and outlook toward life. It’s always been that way and will most likely continue. And though these differences seem a bit greater than some in the past, they are in effect natural. We have already established in the past 30 years that dealing with diversity and understanding each other’s differences is critical to communication and success. So, letting people be who they are and dealing with it is not new. It’s easy to say, “We were all young once” –but the truth is we were not all young under the same circumstances.

One day the under-30 group will grow up and will face a new crop of young people. They will be saying things like “What do you mean we can’t come to work naked? It’s natural. And besides, global warming has made clothing irrelevant!”

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