The Office (today)

What happens when four generations
converge in the modern workplace?

By Keith Davis

Generational clashes didn’t begin yesterday, but there was always a way out. You don’t like smart-mouthed kids or grouchy old fogies? Go where they’re not. In the second decade of the 21st century, though, there’s a new wrinkle. Some might call it a fault line. The workforce in developed countries is composed of multiple generations.

“For the first time in history, four very different generations are working side-by-side,” says Margaret L. Arnold, Ph.D., interim associate dean and associate professor of recreation and leisure studies in the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance. “Each one is shaped and viewed by its year of birth, its age, and the critical events that occurred during their formative years.”

Based on her experience as well as studies that include William Strauss’s and Neil Howe’s seminal book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, Arnold identifies the four generations as:

Traditionalists: born 1922–1945, currently 66 to 89 years old

Boomers: born 1946–1964, 47 to 65 years old

Generation X-ers: born 1965–1980, 31 to 46 years old

Millennials (or Gen Y-ers): born 1981–2000, 11 to 30 years old

Cultural differences between generations aren’t always clear. Boomers and Traditionalists, for example, are both using Facebook to keep up with their grandchildren. Nor are differences within generations necessarily chiseled in stone. According to CNN, retired Boomers are the biggest revenue sources for cruise lines, while USA Today reports that nearly half the Boomers can’t afford to retire. However, when the generations gather in the workplace, they form distinctive patterns around three touchstone areas:

• uses for and attitudes toward technology

• methods of communicating

• attitudes toward work

For Arnold, the technology issue came into focus when she witnessed a 20-year-old student introducing a colleague 40 years his senior to a software program.

“Right click,” the student said. The 60-year-old picked up a pen and neatly wrote “click” in script on a piece of paper. Noticing the quizzical look from the student, the elder asked, “What’s wrong? You told me to write ‘click.’”

“Being a Gen X educator who taught my first class in 1988,” says Arnold, “I recently started to realize that I was becoming one of those old professors who uses references most students don’t get. As an educator working primarily with Millennials, I had to understand the differences between their generation and mine. Otherwise, how could I find ways to build bridges for our mutual benefit?”

Reconcilable Differences

Arnold’s interest led her to develop “Managing the Generational Clash in Your Workplace,” a workshop she has presented at the New York State Business Expo, the National Recreation and Park Association Convention, and numerous other venues. At a recent session, she asked the attendees — who represented all four generations — to recall how and when Kennedy died.

“The Traditionalists and Boomers responded in vivid detail about a shooting in Dallas,” says Arnold. “Gen Xers talked about a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard, and some of the Millennials weren’t sure who Kennedy was until they googled the name on their iPhones.”

The younger generation’s tenuous grasp of history concerns Traditionalist Bill Diehl ’63.

“Though I’m amazed at what young people are doing these days in terms of innovative film projects, I’m also amazed at the way some of them are so out of touch with history,” says Diehl, who spent more than half a century as a news broadcaster with ABC and still works part-time for the network. “I remember an intern asking me, ‘What day was the Holocaust?’ What a sad lack of knowledge about one of history’s great tragedies.”

In return for the history lesson, Diehl got instruction in technology.

“Back in the late ’90s, I was still editing reel-to-reel tape with a razor blade,” he says. “But ABC was eventually going to go all digital, so I knew I had to learn the new technology. Some very smart people in their twenties patiently dragged me kicking and screaming into the digital age.”

Exchanging big-picture perspective for technical tips is also benefiting Millennial Dan Wald ’09, an analyst working at US Imaging Network in New York. When the Boomers and Gen Xers from his company’s upper management team recently went out of town for a weeklong conference, Wald decided the time was right to forego shaving. Wald’s immediate supervisor, a 30-something Gen Xer, called Wald into his office and told him the scraggly beginnings of a beard wasn’t a good idea.

“Though I have a degree in biochemistry, my work involves me with the policy end of things,” says Wald. “That means a lot of interacting with people. I appreciated my boss telling me about the facial hair because he helped me understand how it would make it harder for my clients to take me seriously. I appreciated the advice — but I have to admit, it was like listening to my dad talking.”

In exchange for career advice, Wald can offer his employer his generation’s instinctive understanding of social media.

“Outside of management, my company’s pretty young, but our clients tend to be older,” Wald says. “Even so, more and more clients are asking if we have a Facebook page. We don’t, but we’re going to have to address that because people are going to use social media to keep in touch with us. We have to be ready for that, or we’re going to lose a chunk of our audience. I’m on the boards of a number of nonprofits, and my skill using social media to generate interest and raise funds for those organizations is going to help my company stay in touch with its clients.”

That Wald sits on the boards of Students Active for Ending Rape and the American Cancer Society’s National Relay Advisory Team is incomprehensible to his 80-something great aunt. “She’s very conservative,” Wald says. “She refers to fund-raising as ‘non-work nonsense.’”

His great aunt’s conservatism, though, hasn’t kept her from acquiring the technical skills to cross three generational divides. “She uses Facebook to call me out on my liberal ways,” Wald says.

Technology, though, doesn’t always trump face-to-face exchanges as ways to build lasting relationships.

“The so-called ‘old style communicating’ that came out of my generation and the one before me — one that involved polite protocols — has given way to fast, clipped conversations,” says Boomer Lance Cunha ’68, who spent 40 years counseling companies, central banks, and governments in more than 50 countries. He is currently an adjunct instructor at Notre Dame’s and Emory University’s graduate business schools.

 “In terms of a global workforce, building relationships over time was more important than making a one-time deal,” says Cunha. “About 40 years ago, I had a client in Bolivia, a major exporter of cotton, who needed to see me about a financial problem. Within 48 hours I was knocking on his door in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. I took a jet to La Paz for the first leg of the trip, then rode a dilapidated WW II-era jeep into the mountains, and traveled the last 10 miles by mule. Putting boots on the ground showed my concern and strengthened a long-term relationship. Today, we’d just send him an e-mail or ask the local representative to handle the problem.”

Because younger people, Millennials in particular, value a balance between work life and home, Cunha doesn’t expect today’s young financial officers to be taking mule rides through the Andes any time soon.

“Boomers emerged from World War II,” Cunha says. “We were this country’s first generation to enjoy prosperity on any scale. That makes us more driven. Thirty to forty years ago, we were expected to travel to the region where we did business and, at times, remain there for up to a month. Tell young financial officers now that they’re going to be away from home and family for a month, and they’ll look at you and say, ‘You’re kidding, right?’”

But Cunha wasn’t. Not in the 1970s, nor in the early 2000s.

“Throughout my career, I led by example,” he says. “If a client needed senior attention on an important matter anywhere in the world, I was there. Ten years ago, I travelled from New York to Frankfurt to Singapore to Hong Kong and back in 72 hours to make sure that a very important global banking client knew the senior partner was directly involved in solving his urgent problem. I could have delegated to someone younger, but to me, retaining a multimillion-dollar consulting business meant letting the client know that relationships were what mattered most.”

Give and Take

When the virtue of a strong work ethic collides with the virtue of seeking a balanced life, which one gives? According to Gen Xer Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina ’99, both and neither.

A project manager at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, she supervises a five- to 10-person team of engineers, technicians, and contractors, most of them Boomers and Gen Xers. In her mid-30s, Frasqueri-Molina is the second youngest person in her crew, but her supervisory duties put her in touch with all four generations. The Millennials, she says, have solved balancing work and leisure by erasing the line between them.

“If I want to build a relationship with a Boomer or a Traditionalist or even a Gen Xer, I’ll take them to lunch,” says Frasqueri-Molina. “But if I want to build relationships with Millennials, I’ll meet them in the evening for Drag Queen Bingo. And while we’re listening to the drag queens calling out the bingo numbers and doing their comedy routines, there’s nothing we won’t talk about — including work.”

Not so for other generations.

“For Boomers and Gen Xers, work is here and home is there,” Frasqueri-Molina adds. “The Boomers I work with aren’t on Facebook or Twitter as much, if at all, and a lot of the Gen Xers have homes and families. They’re not as interested in regularly hanging out after work when they have significant others and children at home. With Millennials, everything is fair game.”

That openness, she says, is reflected in the way Millennials communicate.

“With Boomers, you call during business hours or send them an e-mail,” says Frasqueri-Molina. “With my generation, you can either try texting or using social media, but don’t expect to find our personal cell phones on our Facebook pages. With some Millennials, it’s all out there, including their personal cell numbers. I consider myself to be with it, but I would never be at all comfortable giving unhindered access to my personal information the way many Millennials do.”

Frasqueri-Molina’s boss is a Boomer in his early 50s, near the cusp with Gen X. Being closer to Frasqueri-Molina’s age helps him relate more closely, but he doesn’t use social media.

“If he had to directly supervise Millennials, he’d have his hands full,” Frasqueri-Molina says. “He knows how to use the social media technology, but he doesn’t have any love for it. When workers and bosses are two generations apart, that’s when communication challenges arise. Being in that middle generation puts me in touch with the Millennials, because as a Gen Xer I grew up with Atari home video games and computer games. I’m also of an age where I’m more settled, which helps me relate to the Boomers. Observing the ways people are comfortable communicating and then approaching them that way is the key to building teams and getting along. I have to recognize that everybody on a project has a valuable contribution to make. I’m there to facilitate.”

Frasqueri-Molina’s conclusions from the field dovetail with what Arnold presents at her workshops.

“If asked how employees would like to be informed,” Arnold says, “the Traditionalist would likely prefer a memo, the Boomer a telephone call or a meeting, Gen Xers a call on their cell phones during work hours, and Millennials a text 24-7.”

Knowing which type of communication to use and when to use it often requires knowledge of another generation’s culture. Take, for example, expressing gratitude.

“Our students know that when they receive an award from a scholarship, the thing to do is thank the person who created that scholarship,” Arnold says. “In one case, the donor was a Traditionalist, and the student thanked her with an e-mail. She thought she was doing right since, to her, an e-mail is more formal than a text. But the donor was expecting a handwritten note. The Boomers and Gen Xers on faculty had to inform the student that etiquette is relative.”

When the student was counseled, Arnold says, she responded without resentment or eye rolling.

“When I’m having problems opening a program on my computer, and I ask the first 18-year-old I see for advice, there’s no eye rolling there either,” Arnold says. “Millennials like to help. That’s who they are.”

Common Ground

Arnold believes this kind of give-and-take is the way for the generations to find common ground. Traditionalist Jack Cantwell ’60 would agree. After holding senior management positions in large advertising and sales promotion firms, including a five-year stint in Tokyo working with Den Fujita, the founder of McDonald’s in Japan, Cantwell now owns and operates Sky-Limit Marketing in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

“Running my own one-man shop, I have to meet my clients where they are, no matter how old they are,” Cantwell says. “It’s a matter of having credibility and professional expertise. As long as my clients are getting value from my services, they don’t care how old I am. The people who would rather not deal with someone of my generation simply choose not to come to me, and I don’t see them.”

Arnold says the approach to generational differences is the same whether someone owns his or her own business or works for a company.

“We need to take advantage of the strengths each generation brings to the workplace,” she says. “For example, a company could ask a Millennial to present a program on new software the company is introducing. A Gen Xer could train people how to use it, and a Boomer or a Traditionalist could conduct the orientation program on the company’s history that provides a sense of the organization’s mission.”

A big first step toward that end would be to resolve the tension among the generations, which Boomer and physical therapist Jodi Barth ’81 has observed at MedStar Health, a national rehabilitation hospital in Maryland, where she directs a facial palsy clinic.

“I work for Baby Boomers and presently have many Gen Xers and Millennials working for me,” Barth says. “The young people I’m currently hiring weren’t even born when I graduated from IC. I feel that when they come in for an interview, their approach is, ‘What can you do for me?’ I’ve turned this around to explain to them that when they join a team, it should be, ‘What are they bringing to the team?’ I understand my generation is all about work, work, work and not taking much time to stop and smell the flowers. I think the young people I’m interviewing are all about smelling the flowers, and work just helps them pay for these opportunities. It would be nice for us to merge the two generations’ work ethics, and then, hopefully, we would have a well-balanced person.”

Despite our differences, Arnold says, there are three core areas around which the generations can find common ground.

“We all have to want to do well,” she says. “We have to be searching for meaningful work, and we have to want to do what’s best for the organization. The challenge is to implement strategies that will align everyone’s differences with these goals and aspirations.”

As Jack Cantwell says, “If you chose the profession that’s right for you, and you take the right attitude and keep up with the changes, you stay young, regardless of your chronological age.”

1 Comment

I really enjoyed this article, it opened my eyes to realizing that although it doesn't seem like such a large gap our generations differ in tremendous ways. It does a good job in depicting each generation.