November 7, 2006
Generational conflicts among the work force can drain a company's enterprise energy and diminish productivity. This article, based on the 2006 FABTECH® International & AWS Welding Show Executive Forum conducted by Dr. Bob Rausch, explains the differences between baby boom and Generation X employees and offers suggestions for melding the multigenerational work force into cohesive, productive teams.
Today's U.S. work force is dominated primarily by baby boomers—many of whom will continue to work long past the traditional retirement age—and Generation X employees, along with increasing numbers of Millennial and a few Silent Generation workers. How do you take groups with preconceived negative ideas about each other, enlighten them about the positives, and turn them into cohesive, motivated, and energized teams that foster productivity? By understanding who they are and why, opening your minds to their strengths, and learning to communicate in a way that makes the most of what each has to offer.
Because different experts assign varying time spans and labels to the generations—i.e., boomers sometimes are divided into two groups, boomers and shadow boomers, and millennials also are referred to as Generation Yers and echo boomers—it can be difficult to delineate generations clearly. This discussion, which concentrates on boomers and Generation Xers, labels those born between 1946 and 1962 as boomers, and those born between 1962 and 1980 as Generation Xers.
In his 2006 FABTECH® International & AWS Welding Show Executive Forum presentation, "Strategies for members of your work force – both young and old," Dr. Bob Rausch began by quoting remarks members of a senior generation often note about younger generations: "They talk like they know everything and that older people are foolish," and "They are reckless and lack a sense of loyalty." Rausch attributed these and other remarks to Socrates (470 — 399 B.C.), Plato (427 — 348 B.C.), and Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274.
Mature generations traditionally look askance at younger generations. While today's boomers (of which I am one) may believe that the younger generation is taking life as we know it to hell in a hand basket, their parents felt the same way about them, and, no doubt, Gen Xers feel that way about coming generations. Common perceptions about youth are that they have no work ethic, do not listen, and are self-centered and frivolous.
Stereotypical thoughts go both ways. Gen Xers likely feel that boomers are anachronistic. They aren't "with the times," are set in their ways, and are dismissive of new ideas and anyone under a certain age who generates them.
Boomers sprang to life in the post-World War II environment in which the U.S. was the smartest and best country in the world. According to Rausch, boomers had unlimited opportunity for success. Their parents sacrificed for them, and they were destined to become better than their parents. They had a buy now, pay later mentality; lived to work; and were loyal to their companies.
Contrary to what some may think, Rausch said, "Boomers don't like to draw the line in the sand, don't like to fire people, and don't like conflict."
Gen Xers have technology in their blood and are technically savvy. They feel the world is too serious, and like to be casual and informal. Gen Xers are unimpressed with authority and hierarchy, and they are careful about putting their faith in others, loyalty, and commitments. They think out of the box and work to live. They want balance in their lives. And, unlike boomers, Xers do not shy away from conflict.
What happens when stereotypes permeate and rule the workplace? According to Executive Forum participants, productivity decreases, finger-pointing ensues, teams break down, stress increases, and business costs accelerate, all of which deplete a company's enterprise energy.
Rausch defines enterprise energy as the internal supply a team possesses that fuels mental, emotional, and physical behaviors for maximum performance and productivity, a must for optimum business success.
Overcoming the negative effects of generational conflict in the workplace requires focusing on the similarities among the generations. Rausch listed the three most important similarities that all boomer and Gen X workers share—the need to be involved, to be recognized for their involvement, and to be fairly compensated for their efforts.
Forum participants suggested ways company leaders can refuel the common similarities. Communication and education are key elements. The team must be involved in determining its purpose and mission, which must be communicated regularly.
Include both generations in decision-making, and involve them by allowing them to create solutions.
Presentations like the Executive Forum can help educate each generation on the others' strengths. (Rausch also recommended books noted at the end of this article.)
Rausch suggested 13 specific steps to maximize both generations' energy:
He also advised that companies have a succession plan. Part of this and any plan for melding the generations effectively should involve boomers mentoring Gen Xers.
Rausch called on boomers to stop criticizing Gen Xers. "If you're a baby boomer criticizing a Gen Xer, you're killing your energy, theirs, and anyone you complain to."
The same applies to Gen Xers who complain about boomers. Complaining seldom solves problems and sometimes prolongs them. It's better to spend your efforts working to maximize the energy of both generations.
Someone discussed at length in the forum presentation was "Joe," the boomer manager who refuses to recognize the strengths in his Gen X team members and continually criticizes and dismisses them. Rausch recommended that the best way to deal with Joe is first to call him into a meeting with other managers to educate the group on generational differences and strengths, rather than single him out for his behavior.
If this doesn't work? A participant from the boomer generation had an answer: "Move Joe to a nonsupervisory position. Motivating the multigenerational work force to work together has to come from the top down."
At the end of the forum, a Gen Xer made the following comments: "Generation Xers have something to offer. Boomers must take the first step to acknowledge Xers' knowledge—what Gen Xers bring to the table."
The generation that took the first steps on the moon surely can take this step toward working more effectively with its successors.
Rausch recommended the following books for more information on this topic: Generations at Work, by Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak The Art of Connecting, by Raines and Ewing When Generations Collide, by Lancaster and Stillman A Bias for Action, by Bruch and Ghoshal