Is the generational crisis real?

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It’s easy to find anecdotes about workers from different generations in conflict. But researchers say people generally share the same values, such as honesty, competence and loyalty.

Generational conflict at work has become a hot issue for business, trade and popular media. From reading some of these accounts, one might think that middle-aged managers and entry-level 20-somethings were constantly at each other’s throats.

Every profession seems to have its own version: In a journal for professors of medicine, for example, a dean describes young physicians who appear unprofessional to older colleagues. An American Bar Association journal article describes how Gen Y lawyers complain about the basic discovery and research expected of law firm associates. Even bovine and rural veterinarians are unwilling to work long hours, the American Veterinary Medicine Association reports.

Despite all the attention to differences between the generations, leaders need to remember that all generations have far more in common, some researchers say.

“A lot of consultants are making a nice living claiming that younger generations are totally different, but they are not,” said Paul Arsenault, chair of the marketing department at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a researcher on generational issues. “There are generational differences but much of this has been way overblown.”

Whether in the popular press or academic publications, the terms and definitions of the various generations vary slightly but tend to fall generally into four categories:

  • Veterans or Traditionalists, born before 1946;
  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964;
  • Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1981; and
  • Millennials or Generation Next, born between 1981 and 2000.

 

Each generation has a distinct profile, the theory goes, and though the descriptions vary, they fall along the following lines: Veterans tend to respect hierarchy and authority and are conformists and believers in discipline. Boomers are good team players, love social interaction at work, question authority, and are willing to work long hours to advance up the corporate ladder. Gen Xers are skeptical and self-reliant, dislike hierarchy, challenge others, and want a balanced life. Though still entering the workplace, Millennials are described as optimistic and confident achievers who are goal-oriented and tenacious but willing to leave a job if they’re not happy.

Different generations do go through social, political and cultural experiences that collectively influence their attitudes, values and beliefs, Arsenault said. But in his research on attitudes toward leadership, for example, Arsenault found that Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Nexters all listed honesty as the most important characteristic for leaders, followed to varying degrees by competence and loyalty. In a survey, all wanted leaders who are capable and effective.

But within those broad similarities, subtle differences also appeared. Veterans, for example, valued honesty and loyalty more strongly, reflecting their belief in authority and hierarchical relationships. Boomers valued caring, competence and honesty, while Gen Xers and Nexters rated terms such as “determination” and “ambitious” more highly, expressing a preference for leaders who are change agents who challenge the status quo.

Asked to identify their favorite leaders, people from the four generations picked people who fit their leadership style. Veterans, for example, identified Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. Boomers named such leaders as Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, while Gen Xers and Nexters identified Bill Gates and Tiger Woods as models.

Likewise, a major study by the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego, Calif., found the workplace generation gap to be largely exaggerated or untrue. According to the study by Jennifer Deal, reported in her book “Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground,” all generations want credible and trustworthy leaders. They all have problems with change and organizational politics.

Though the potential for generational conflicts at work is real, it is dwarfed by other conflicts, Deal concluded in her study. So rather than worrying about the generation gap, leaders would be better off focusing on other issues, she wrote: No matter their age, employees want opportunities, respect and recognition, quality of life and fair compensation.