Bridging the Generation Gap

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2006

When a 70-year-old shift leader at Berry Plastics/Kerr Group's Sarasota division went to the human resources manager seeking advice on how to handle a new 20-something employee with multiple tattoos, body piercings and trousers so baggy that he had to continually pull them up, she knew it was time to get help.

The HR manager turned to Karen Magee, president of Karen Magee and Associates, a Sarasota-based business consultant who helps organizations understand how to manage problems resulting from generational diversity.

Increasingly, Magee is being asked to help companies bridge the generation gaps. "Most of the training I do is centered on raising awareness," she says. "Corporate management has been dealing with employee diversity in terms of gender and race for years, but diversity in terms of age is a whole new area that has not been addressed before. It's really a worldwide trend that has serious local implications." How serious? Age discrimination has become the fastest growing category of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-up 41 percent since 1999, reports Express Personnel Services, an Oklahoma City-based company that develops HR training programs.

For the first time in history, four generations are in the workplace-each imbued with different values and communication styles that often create a "Who's on first?" environment of cross-purposes and confusion. Although the exact 20-year spans defining each generation differ slightly among experts, the four groups have been identified as the Traditionalists, who were born between 1922-1943; Baby Boomers, 1943-1960; Generation X, 1960-1980; and Millennials-also referred to as Generation Y or the Nexters-who were born after 1980. Those born on the cusp of a generation are known as "Cuspers," and often reflect the traits of both generations.

All kinds of conflicts can adversely impact the workplace when employees from these four generations meet at the water cooler-from the Millennial who won't unplug her iPod long enough to say "Good morning" to the Boomer boss who can't understand why his Gen X employees won't work on weekends. "Key issues can revolve around everything from confusion about dress codes to growing resentment from 50-year-old Baby Boomers who may have to report to 30-year-old Generation X supervisors," Magee says.

The recent generational diversity class Magee taught to 20 managers and supervisors at Berry Plastics/Kerr Group, which manufactures plastic containers, tubes, cups and other packaging, is a case in point. The company's human resource manager, Martha Johnson, noticed problems arising because of the growing number of employees staying on past the age of 65.

"Many of these older employees are directly supervising Millennials who are just entering the workforce," Johnson says. "I thought Karen's generational diversity class was just what we needed. Since then, we've seen a big improvement in the way employees of different ages interact. Expectations have changed for the better because we have an understanding of how different generations think and work."

According to a 2004 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the current workforce consists of approximately 10 percent Traditionalist, 44 percent Baby Boomers, 34 percent Gen Xers and 12 percent Millennials. SHRM survey analyst Mary Elizabeth Burke says that, although there are always exceptions, each generation has its own profile. She briefly describes Traditionalists as the most reliable and loyal employees; Baby Boomers, who adopted many of the Traditionalists' values, as hard workers, and likely to work past retirement age; and Generation X workers as self-reliant, often performing well where work assignments are not well defined. Burke believes that Millennials share some similarities with Generation X, but warns that it is still too early to know how they will define themselves in the workplace.

Among the generational challenges Doctors Hospital of Sarasota supervisors face, says human resource director Theresa Levering, is the need to spell out policies on the use of cell phones and text messaging. "This was not something that needed to be done with the previous generations," Levering says. Doing so has a distinct advantage: "Clarifying these expectations up front during the interview process has helped in the retention of employees."

Levering says 10 percent of Doctor's Hospital's 600-plus employees are Traditionalists, 60 percent Baby Boomers, 20 percent Gen Xers and 10 percent Millennials. The hospital created an employee advisory group to bring employees of all age groups together with management regularly to identify and resolve issues from dress codes to employee health. "We've worked hard to engage employees by creating flexible work schedules, coaching older workers on technology, and allowing for differences in communication style," she says.

Scott Lempe, associate superintendent for business support services and former executive director of human resource and labor relationships for the Sarasota School System, believes that generational diversity is a real benefit to educators. The school system pairs veteran and first-year teachers in a mandatory "induction" program, and also seeks out retired principals in the community to mentor younger principals and vice-principals. He reports that of the school system's 3,000 employees, 12 percent are ages 20-29, 22 percent are 30-39, 24 percent are 40-49, 32 percent are 50-59 and 10 percent are 60 years or older.

"Our seasoned teachers know how to manage a classroom, and are valuable mentors. Younger teachers not only bring a rejuvenated enthusiasm to their work, they often relate better to their students because they're closer in age. It's a nice balance," Lempe says.

Bealls, Inc., headquartered in Bradenton, employs nearly 13,000 people at its retail department and outlet stores from Florida to California. Dan Doyle, vice president of human resource and loss prevention, oversees a workforce that includes a broad spectrum of workers-from teens to 90-year-olds.

Doyle agrees that younger employees definitely have different expectations. "Many of our new hires would like to start at a higher level than in past generations. They want advancement sooner rather than later and are less likely to exhibit company loyalty. Sometimes, it doesn't happen fast enough and they move on."

Another of Doyle's chief concerns is replacing the majority of retiring employees with newer ones who will carry on the company's tradition and values. "Our most important mission is finding the best ways to transfer what it is we do and how we do it from one generation to the next," he says. Part of the solution, he says, is to enhance communication with all Bealls employees, regardless of age. "We're currently exploring an employee Web portal that will allow access to company news, benefit packages, and emerging corporate policies and procedures."

Doyle cites dress code as one of the biggest generational conflicts. "Employee appearance is an ongoing conversation because we've gone from business formal to beyond business casual. Today, we're dealing with things like tattoos and body piercing. We've found the best approach is to be clear about our dress code expectations as well as those of our customers. We'll point out to younger employees that someone with a nose ring might intimidate an elderly customer."

Doyle was reluctant to stereotype generational differences, especially about work ethics. "We've got Gen Xers who really want to work toward building a career and Traditionalists who watch the clock. I believe it's really up to the individual."

Richmond, Va.-based consultant John Martin, president and CEO of Southeastern Institute of Research and founder of the Boomer project (, a generational think tank that regularly shares its findings with U.S. companies like Bealls, has devoted his career to understanding Baby Boomers. Echoing Doyle's skepticism about stereotyping generational differences, Martin believes it is necessary to form a comprehensive picture of what makes each generation tick.

"Our research has exploded some commonly held beliefs like the myth that Gen Xers are slackers," he says. "The truth is that this age group is the ideal workforce because they don't need a lot of supervision to get the job done." Martin explains that Gen Xers (he marks the generation from 1965-1983) grew up as latchkey kids who became self-reliant at an early age. At 60 million, they are the smallest generation to enter the workforce. "Typically, Gen Xers think globally, are independent and pragmatic, yet skeptical. They'll work hard for 40 hours, but that's it."

Martin's research company has been involved in more than 12,000 projects over the past 43 years. He agreed with the SHMR survey that organizations have the potential to reap far more benefits from an intergenerational workforce than liabilities.

Most of the conflicts SHRM cited were about work hours and acceptable dress. In most cases, these issues can be resolved satisfactorily when management defines at the outset what is and is not acceptable for the organization. Another common complaint came from employees who reported feeling that younger or older co-workers didn't understand or respect them. Many of these issues were resolved when organizational efforts were made to improve communication, either through awareness training or by the creation of special group discussion forums that include employees and management working together toward solutions.

Sarasota resident and former Moffit Cancer Center vice president of human resources Lon Estes summed up the changing role for human resources. "When I started in HR, our chief responsibility, besides maintaining personnel records, was organizing employee events like softball and bowling teams. During my 40-year career, I've seen human resources change dramatically to become primarily responsible for facilitating change within the organization."

As Traditionalists and Baby Boomers leave the workplace, experts like Magee and Martin predict that human resource professionals will need to take on the mission of transmitting valuable institutional knowledge to Generation X and Y employees.

In the meantime, Martin emphasizes that today's organizations can only benefit from all four generations working together. "There's no need to marginalize the 45 to 60-year old CEO. Instead, enlightened companies should turn them into mentors for the Millennials, who, at 80 million strong, are the future workforce of our country."

Tips to Improve Your Workplace Relationship

With Traditionalists: 

Show them respect for their length of service and experience.

Watch your language; no cursing allowed.

Take your time when discussing technology, particularly e-mail.

Unless you know them well, address them as Mr. or Mrs.

Don't rush or pressure them.





With Baby Boomers

Resist rushing and learn to value the "people side" of business.

Choose face-to-face conversation whenever possible.

Ask for their advice and then take notes to show you are listening.

Offer your support and partner to get the job done; don't wait to be asked.

Don't call them "older." Words like "mature" or "prime" are viewed more positively.




With Gen Xers

Stop micro-managing them.

Initiate work/life balance initiatives.

Teach them new skills.

When delegating, describe the outcomes, but leave the processes to them.

Value their need to keep learning in order to be marketable.




With Millennials

Give them your Web address and be prepared for an improvement plan.

Emphasize the positives of doing right rather than the negatives of doing wrong.

Respond quickly and move fast with this "instant gratification" generation.

Mentor them and be realistic.

Be prepared to offer very flexible scheduling.




SOURCE: Express Personnel Services, Talking About Our Generations: A Personal Guide to Mastering Generational Diversity in the Workplace. 

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