Flip-Flops vs. Gray Hair: Managing Generation Clashes in the Workplace

In one corner of the office we have an experienced, competitive baby boomer. In the other, a confident, multi-tasking Generation Y employee who expects to shoot to the top and then move on – all while wearing flip-flops. When they meet, expect fireworks.

In an interview with EHS Today, management expert Claire Simmers, Ph.D., chair and professor of management at Saint Joseph’s University, described the challenges facing multigenerational workplaces and how employers can encourage harmony among workers of different generations.

Simmers outlined the four generations present in today’s work force and how they typically approach work:

  • The Silent Generation – These workers, who were born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, grew up when jobs were scarce, Simmers said. They tend to be very dedicated to their employers and view the organization as a place that will take care of them. They typically are employed part time.
  • Baby Boomers – The largest generation, made up of workers in their 40s, 50s and 60s, are competitive and work hard to be successful. They desire a good lifestyle, are educated and want to remain in the workplace. As Simmers said, “They won’t go quietly into retirement.”
  • Generation X – These workers likely grew up in households with two working parents. They are independent, strive to attain a work-life balance and don’t necessarily expect to spend their entire careers within one organization.
  • Generation Y or Millennials – Simmers called this generation “the entitlement generation.” These workers are educated, sophisticated, confident and ready to run everything. They are quick, mobile and capable of multi-tasking. Other generations, Simmers said, tend to think Generation Y workers lack a sense of loyalty.

“Not every single person fits into these generalizations, and there is certainly overlap,” Simmers acknowledged. Even so, research shows a pattern of behavior in the different generations and how they view each other.

When employers ignore differences between generations, their staff’s motivation, engagement and retention may suffer.

First Impressions

Employees in one generation may discount others based on appearance alone. For example, older generations might not be very receptive to the fashion choices of the younger Generation Y workers.

“If they’re coming to work in flip-flops or if they have tattoos or body piercings, the people in the baby boom generation look at them and say, ‘You can’t possibly know anything,’” Simmers told EHS Today. “On the flip side, I think Generation Y has the tendency to think that baby boomers and the silent generation don’t know anything, that they’re technologically challenged or they don’t have any experience or anything of value to offer in the workplace. They discount the experience factor.”

“Sometimes, neither one of them can get past the gray hair or the flip-flops,” Simmers added.

Safety Across Generations

Simmers explained that personal risk-taking behavior might be age-related. For example, young workers are more likely to consider themselves invincible and therefore may be more lax about their personal safety. Older workers, on the other hand, might feel they have more in their lives to protect and will take fewer risks.

Organizational risk-taking behavior, meanwhile, tends to be divided along generation lines. Simmers speculated that baby boomers may be more likely to cut corners to save money or get the job done on time. They are concerned with fulfilling the profit potential of an organization, so they may take more risks.

Generation Y employees often are more conscious of the environment. If they witness their organizations sacrificing environmental standards to save money or time, they are more likely to become whistleblowers or simply leave the job. Simmers said Generation X and Y workers are more open about taking less organizational risk and concentrate instead on the environment and standards.

“They want to hold organizations to task and make sure safety regulations are there, and they’re not going to listen to organization as much if they don’t think it’s right,” she said.

Bridging the Gap

To help foster understanding across the generations, Simmers advised employers to create cross-generational teams and encourage workers to share their ideas and expectations.

“It sounds so straightforward and simple, but it’s getting to know that people are individuals and that they have strengths and weaknesses beyond how they may necessarily look,” she explained.

Simmers offered the following advice to bridge the gap between generations:

  • Focus on outcomes. While wearing flip-flops in 30-degree weather might not be your cup of tea, the behavior is not linked to poor performance.
  • Embrace differences. Be tolerant of differences while looking for common ground.
  • Work together. Multigenerational viewpoints enrich the workplace, so organizations should use this as a strength.
  • Be flexible. The employment contract of the 21st century is different from when baby boomers first entered the workforce. The relationship is more fluid for both employer and employee – younger employees may be more mobile and appear less loyal, but the same is true of most organizations.
  • Respect each other. While there is a collectivity of “generations,” it’s important not to make assumptions of individuals based on age. Not every boomer is ignorant of technology and not every Generation Y worker is lazy and uncommitted.

According to Simmers, blending the experience of the older generations with the freshness of younger generations can yield positive results for employers.

“The more opinions and different viewpoints you have leads to robustness and richness,” she said.

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