April 5, 2010

When generations collide, are you bound to get fireworks?

Colleen Clarke, one of my favourite career counsellors who writes for The Globe and Mail wrote a great article for Workopolis about the growing gap between workers of different generations.

With pensions not supplying enough income for retirees, combined with more and more young students entering the workforce with post-secondary credentials, it's the "first time in the history of the industrialized world [that] four different generations are working together in the same work environments, and it is proving to be quite the challenge for many companies."

Clarke begins her article with a scenario that at first glance, appears to be fake. But in talking with hiring managers in a range of sectors, I've heard that it's becoming more and more common.

A recent college graduate is being interviewed for an I.T. position with a well established company. A manager who has been with the company for over 15 years is conducting the interview. After the formal part of the interview is over, the interviewee, a Generation Yer, (someone under 26 years of age) asks about hours worked and the flexibility of start and finish times. The interviewer, a Baby Boomer, states in no uncertain terms that the hours are 9am – 5pm, no flex time permitted. The Gen Yer says, “If I work till midnight one night am I still expected to come in at 9AM the next morning?” The Baby Boomer replied, “Yes, those are our hours.” And, the Gen Yer got up and walked out of the room with not so much as a 'how do you do'.

That particular scenario points to what Clarke sees as the four different generations still in the workplace:

Traditionalists – 62 years of age and older
Baby Boomers – 43 years of age or older
Generation X – 27 – 42 years old
Generation Y – 26 or younger

And so, with such a range of ages still involved in the workforce, there are bound to be challenges since expectations, wants, desires, skill sets, experience levels, ambitions, etc. will be different amongst each group.

I remember back in 2003 when I was working at a real estate company and this clash became apparent. This company was what you might consider "old school" in that they used a typewriter to draft certain legal documents and messages were still taken using a pen and paper.

As a member of Gen Y, I suggested using technology to streamline business practices and to improve our service offerings, but the Traditionalists and Baby Boomers in the office felt that the existing status quo was sufficient.

For a few weeks, the idea went back and forth, but thankfully, management did implement my suggestion after hearing criticisms from real estate agents and their clients.

Ever since then, I've encountered other situations where my generational values clash with those of other generations - I don't consider it a clash so much as a creative difference over work practices.

And here's the thing, I don't think that the different generations are out to prove each other wrong - I know I'm not. It's just that we've grown up in entirely different worlds.

But the great thing is that good managers and senior executives will realize these differences and exploit them to maximize efficiency. Sure, clashes are bound to happen, but there's no reason for the fireworks!

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