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Bridging the Workplace Generation Gap – Necessary or Not?

Among the many articles, blogs, whitepapers and books I’ve read lately, was one Avison Young whitepaper[1] that asks a provocative question:

“Are organizations in danger of using generational stereotyping as an excuse for not engaging fully with the workforce to build business transformation solutions that drive improved employee retention and knowledge sharing?”

picture of a flat, straight wooden bridge

While the paper acknowledges that the (up to) five generations currently co-habiting the workplace do have varying perspectives, based on different life experiences, the authors suggest that workers of all generations have more in common than we might think. Specifically, the report cites the research of Jennifer Deal PhD, author of Retiring the Generation Gap. Having studied the reality of multi-generational workforces extensively, Dr. Deal believes the generational stereotypes are largely unfounded. In fact, she goes so far as to define the following 10 Principles to serve as guidelines for organizations daunted by the need to develop unique engagement strategies for each generation.[2]

  • Principle 1: All Generations Have Similar Values; They Just Express Them Differently
  • Principle 2: Everyone Wants Respect; They Just Don’t Define It the Same Way
  • Principle 3: Trust Matters
  • Principle 4: People Want Leaders Who Are Credible and Trustworthy
  • Principle 5: Organizational Politics Is a Problem—No Matter How Old or Young You Are
  • Principle 6: No One Really Likes Change
  • Principle 7: Loyalty Depends on the Context, Not on the Generation
  • Principle 8: It Is as Easy to Retain a Young Person as an Older One — If You Do the Right Things
  • Principle 9: Everyone Wants to Learn—More Than Just About Anything Else
  • Principle 10: Everyone Wants a Coach

Although the specifics around how you might address some of these principles will likely vary from one generation to another, she concludes that the principles themselves are constant and can serve as a touchstone for creating a working environment that appeals to all.

Generations: More Alike Than Different

The Avison Young researchers and Dr. Deal are not alone in questioning the validity of generational stereotypes and the degree of multi-generational workplace angst. In a paper that set out to explore those exact issues[3], Marion White describes a fruitless search for scientific evidence in support of generational stereotypes, while at the same time sharing findings from a growing body of research demonstrating strong similarities between generations rather than notable differences. For example, White cites research conducted by Ben Rosen, Ph.D[4], that illustrates much more common ground between various generations than popular perception suggests. From an extensive survey, which garnered more than 5,400 respondents, Dr. Rosen found that Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials have the same top five expectations of their employers.

  1. To work on challenging projects.
  2. Competitive compensation.
  3. Opportunities for advancement, and chances to learn and grow in their jobs.
  4. To be fairly treated.
  5. Work-life balance.

While these five expectations don’t correspond exactly with Dr. Deal’s 10 principles, they certainly reflect considerable overlap. White’s report concludes with a recommendation to employers and HR Professionals to

“focus on what the generations have in common, treat [their] employees fairly and offer them work-life balance, challenging projects, opportunities for advancement, [and] learning and growth in their jobs….Instead of focusing first on what divides us, a better approach to managing generations in the workplace may be to start with our similarities.”

Of course, none of these researchers are suggesting that no differences exist between generations or that real differences should be ignored. Rather, the common thread that emerges is a call to focus on shared, fundamental values that matter to all generations, even though they may be expressed differently. By zeroing in on those core values[5] and understanding how they’re expressed and manifested across various generations, employers can craft a work environment that bridges real and imagined generation gaps—and works for everyone.

 

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[1] Avison Young. Five Generations: Is the need for new workplace structures myth or reality? http://newyork.citybizlist.com/article/329642/five-generations-is-the-need-for-new-workplace-structures-myth-or-reality

[2] Jennifer J. Deal, Retiring the Generation Gap Summary Presentation. http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/landing/GAP10122007.pdf

[3] Marion White, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Rethinking Generation Gaps in the Workplace: Focus on Shared Values http://www.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/executive-development/custom-programs/~/media/Files/documents/executive-development/rethinking-generation-gaps-in-the-workplace.ashx

[4] Professor of Organizational Behavior for the Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[5] Ceil Wloczewski,  Core Values Bridging the Generation Gap in the Workplace, http://www.cellaconsulting.com/blog/core-values-bridging-generation-gap-workplace/

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