Understanding the Generational Culture Clash Happening in the U.S. Workforce Today
A Primer for Managers of Multigenerational Teams
The scene is a familiar one. Two people of different generations engaged in conversation and experiencing a values clash and conflict. It could be two strangers over social media, or a grandparent and grandchild over the dinner table, or even a boss and an employee over the conference table. Bring up the topic of generational differences to any diverse group and people respond with knowing nods and raised eyebrows.
We are living in a new era of multigenerational diversity in the workplace. For the first time in U.S. history, five generations are all sharing the office together: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers.
This means teams may have a generational gap of more than 50 years between its oldest and youngest members. Think about that for a second. It’s like a new grad working with a great grandparent. No wonder tensions arise! In fact, there are more older adults remaining in the workforce today than previous generations. Americans over the age of 65 are employed at the highest rates in fifty-five years. At the same time, younger people are entering the workforce and bringing with them their own sets of values and expectations.
As a result of this generational diversity, many organizations are experiencing conflict and misunderstanding between their employees. The culture clash of differing values and beliefs based on the time period in which a person grew up lead to decreased employee engagement, less effective collaboration, and ultimately lower profits for the business.
So how do we deescalate the tension and create organizational cultures that support everyone?
The first step is having awareness that this phenomenon is happening. Take a look at your organization’s leadership and structure. What’s working well? Where are the points of tension between employees? What could be improved upon?
Generational strife is an opportunity to review current policies and find solutions that appeal to the strengths of each generation. What if the knowledge and experience of older workers was leveraged with the innovation and enthusiasm of younger workers? What if instead of fighting over our differences, we highlighted our similarities? What’s possible if generational diversity is seen as a way to bring out the best of each generation?
A generation is defined as a group of people born and living at the same time. A person’s values, beliefs, and expectations are shaped by the society and time period in which they grew up. Many of us experience generational dissonance when we sit down for a large family dinner and notice that the views and opinions of grandparents can differ from those of their children or grandchildren. In many workplaces, the generational span is like that of a family so it’s not surprising that conflict arises between the older and younger generations.
The good news is that while individuals from different generations may have opposing viewpoints and expectations, we as human beings are all more alike than we are different.
Yes the fundamental desires for purpose, quality leadership, and professional growth in the workplace are universal no matter your generation. What changes from generation to generation is how individuals express their needs and preferences at work and their expectations about their employer’s fulfillment of these needs.
Of course generational identity is only one facet of a person. Gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, class, and disability all impact a person’s experience as they move through the world. The value of viewing workplace culture through the lens of generational identity is that many of the expectations and beliefs around how to behave and serve on a team in a business setting are directly related to the generation in which a person grew up.
Breaking Down the Generations*
To understand these expectations more, let’s break down the generations and get a sense of where each group is coming from.
- Born: 1925–1945
- U.S. Births: 47 million
- Share Experiences: the Great Depression, WWI & WWII
- Characteristics: Hardworking, loyal, cautious, formal, proud, respectful of authority, tech-challenged
Also known as the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation, these children of the Great Depression grew up with strict rules and saw 50 percent of men serving in the military. Traditionalists are accustomed to hierarchy, appreciate order, and are still serving as leaders and decision makers in some organizations.
- Born: 1946–1964
- U.S. Births: 76 million
- Shared Experiences: rise of America as a superpower, expanding consumerism, the Civil Rights movement
- Characteristics: Self-focused, competitive, optimistic, “forever young” mentality
Baby Boomers are the offspring of parents who wanted more for their children than they had. They built and shaped many of America’s economic and political systems and are still leaders and decision makers in government and industry. The values of Boomers have guided the U.S. since they were adults and many are still in the workforce today.
- Born: 1965–1980
- U.S. Births: 55 million
- Shared Experiences: rise of the Internet and the dot-com bubble, 9/11
- Characteristics: Independent, cautious, skeptical, tech pioneers
Members of Gen X grew up in a world of changing political and environmental concerns that helped shape them as more skeptical and also adaptable. Their smaller numbers meant they had to conform to the standards set by previous generations which means they are often considered the forgotten “middle child” between Baby Boomers and Millennials.
- Born: 1981–1996
- U.S. Births: 62 millions
- Shared Experiences: rise of social media, the Great Recession
- Characteristics: Self-expressive, group oriented, purpose-driven, tech dependent
Also referred to as Generation Y, Millennials grew up in an age of rising connectivity, less privacy, and economic instability. Nurtured by parents who wanted to be more of a friend than an authority figure, Millennials are confident, ambitious, and achievement-oriented. They have high expectations of their employers, desire new challenges at work, and aren’t afraid to question authority.
- Born: 1997 — TBD
- U.S. Births: TBD
- Shared Experiences: full integration of technology into all aspects of life, expanding awareness around diversity, gender, and LGBTQA rights
- Characteristics: Cautious, technologically advanced, diverse
Gen Zers are the most diverse generation in American history with 48 percent being a part of a minority race or ethnic group. They’re also the most educated generation with more than half of young people 18 to 20 year olds enrolled in higher education. Gen Zers value mental, emotional, and physical health and are more risk-averse than previous generations.
Defining Key Terms
Now that we understand the general characteristics of each generation, let’s define some of the important terms related to generational theory.
According to Webster Dictionary, multigenerational is defined as consisting of, relating to, or involving more than one generation; as of a family.
Cross-generational is defined as pairing individuals from different generations with the goal of mutual learning and growth. This can be a great way to help older employees learn about current trends while younger employees learn about professionalism and business development.
Intergenerational is defined as relating to, involving, or affecting interaction between members of different generations.
The Road to Multigenerational Success
Understanding the causes and impact of generational culture clash is the first step in creating a higher functioning and more collaborative workplace. This is important because good culture produces good employees who work hard and stick with an organization. Ask your team how they feel about generational differences and see what comes up. The goal is to find mutual understanding between people and this can only be accomplished if everyone is able to express and be heard.
Organizations that take the multigenerational challenge head on are the ones who break through underlying tensions and find solutions appealing to all generations. It may require some difficult — cathartic — conversations and the updating of dated practices and policies, but in the end you’ll have a team ready to perform well not only today, but into the future as well.
By: Justin Shaddix
*Stats sourced from The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, Lindsey Pollak, 2019