ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Issue Highlight — A Sign Of Hope
- Peter Block addresses the importance for corporations to work in the public interest as well as the interest of shareholders, building strong communities and promoting social equity.


Online Edition - November/December 2000

 In This Issue...
Tackling Leadership
Generation X And The Baby Boomers At Work
Heeding The Call
A Sticky Situation: Creating Innovative Climates
Motivation Made Easy

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

Generation X And The Baby
Boomers At Work

Getting Past the Generation Gap

 Two distinct generations walk the halls in your office today, and chances are they're not saying much as they pass by each other on their way to meetings or lunch. The members of one generation, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), have walked from your company lunchroom to boardroom for years, first full of spunk and optimism in the 1980s, then during the heart-palpating insecurities of the 1990s. Now these veterans carry with them a lot of knowledge and experience. A history with the company, they say, gives them an understanding the new generation just doesn't have.

 That new generation is Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979), a group far smaller in number than the boomers. GenXers constitute about 20 percent of the total population in the United States, vs. the boomer's 30 percent. Generation X watched 90s downsizing from the classroom or television screen instead of witnessing it via company-wide memorandum, and planned their career paths accordingly. So while they're dedicated to the company while employed, the fact that they don't expect to be there forever is plain.

  Few members of Generation X believe they will work for one company for two or three decades, as the generation before them did. The Families and Work Institute's National Study of the Changing Workforce found that only half of the GenXers surveyed think that a company should provide lifelong employment.

   As a result, Generation X has invested more in education (64 percent have some education beyond high school, as opposed to 44 percent of baby boomers, according to the study) and value being highly trained. They view their contributions to a company as important and valuable, and expect to be paid a reasonable rate for it immediately, as opposed to the long-term raises and inflationary pay hikes of the boomer generation. GenXers also expect to be given the information and technology needed to contribute quickly and concisely, something the generation before them viewed as a privilege.

  Maybe you're starting to see the source of the conflict here. Baby boomers are in it for the long haul and have learned, through some stress and sacrifice, the way things work. That knowledge is viewed as a merit by boomers, and is not simply handed out at the door your first day on the job. GenXers walk through the door and expect to be given the information and technology they need to do the job they've been hired for. It's not a privilege, it's practical.

  Add a little miscommunication to the mix, and you've got a cache of curmudgeons who won't let people do their jobs because they're "threatened," and a bunch of irreverent upstarts who think they can do it all without having a clue as to the real impact of their actions.

 Bang! The gun's gone off and the generation wars have started in your company.

Today's Workplace

  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, downsizing defined the business era. New forms of technology paved the way for more efficient processing of work-computerized systems and processed numbers and procedures faster in a more fluid way that required less staff. As a result, almost everybody knew someone who lost a job. For baby boomers, that someone was a friend, a partner, a sister or brother. And for families with kids in college or in the midst of building their dream home, the experience was devastating.

  Changes in the workplace have continued to morph. Mergers and acquisitions continue to streamline processes, so that departments are not duplicated, and cumbersome service centers are outsourced. The result is that the American economy is stronger than ever. We're fast, efficient, clean and profitable. And we are not going back.

  The American workforce has changed to suit this new atmosphere. More professionals are becoming "free agents": independent contractors, freelancers, temps, telecommuters. And companies are more flexible in their hiring practices, taking on full-time, part-time and flex-time employees. This system helps companies meet the demand in profitable areas without making a long-term commitment that may not work a few years from now. For Generation X, the new staffing flexibility is not a problem. In fact, that works just fine, considering the treatment some of their loyal, one-company-per-lifetime parents received. But there are other lifestyle reasons for members of Generation X to choose a free-agent working style.

What Makes Generation X Tick?

  Generation X saw the rise of divorce (the divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1975) and the dissolution of the nuclear family. They also witnessed the fall of President Nixon at an impressionable age, have recognized the insolubility of Social Security and watched the generation before them sacrifice their ideals for money and power at the expense of the environment.

  This has motivated Generation X to become what's been referred to as the "repair generation." According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's National Survey of college freshman, teaching, nursing and other altruistic professions are on the rise. Interest in the environment and a balanced lifestyle are priorities. While the average GenXer works 45 hours a week, most would like to cut this number back to 39, according to a recent Fortune magazine poll. While financial success is important to Generation X, personal fulfillment through a rich family life and happy marriage takes precedence (87 percent of GenXers plan to be married only one time).

  Being a free agent suits the desires of Generation X. Because GenXers are for the most part highly educated and technically advanced, they can charge reasonably for their services and still have time to be at home with their families.

  But many in the baby boom generation are uncomfortable with flexible, short-term working relationships. Baby boomers grew up with the most secure surroundings of any generation in American history, a time of unprecedented prosperity, with mothers who stayed home and fathers with stable company jobs. Change and adaptability are less familiar to boomers than to GenXers, and a regular, full-time workforce is what boomers inherently prefer. Certainly, it's more comforting to know who you'll pick to tackle a hot new project, instead of flipping through a rolodex to find an available freelancer.

Sitting Both Sides Down

  According to Patrick McCormick of Boyle and Associates Consulting in Corvallis, Ore., companies must expend extra effort to bridge the generational differences through dialogue.

  McCormick, a research and development consultant at Boyle, says boomers need to understand the developmental dynamics behind the Generation X mentality, and how this suits the current economy, to appreciate the direct, aggressive approach GenXers exhibit at work. Generation X, on the other hand, needs to pay attention to the cultural standards that have informed the opinions and nature of their older counterparts.

  McCormick suggests providing the generational groups with information about each other; statistical surveys, for example. What the members of each group will find, according to McCormick, is that the two groups hold significant beliefs in common: Both generations have strong work ethics. (A common misconception is that Generation X doesn't like to work. In fact, more members of Generation X participate in the workforce than baby boomers did at their age, and for longer hours, according to the Families and Work Institute's National Study of the Changing Workforce.)

  Sharing this type of information helps employees understand the common interest they have in increasing productivity, getting projects done and solving problems. In short, it leads to an establishment of common ground-the desire to accomplish company goals. While the generations are accustomed to achieving these goals in sometimes disparate ways, those ways make more sense if we know what informs each method.

  The baby boomers and Generation X must work together-they will share the labor pool for at least two more decades. There are differences between these groups socially and culturally, but on a business level, they are dedicated to the same purpose. Companies need to make sure their managers know what these generations are bringing to the table-Generation X is largely misunderstood and underutilized by the baby boomers who hold positions of authority.

  With the facts in hand, it's easier to push aside misconceptions and failed communications between the generations and move toward commonly defined goals, making these goals much easier to attain.

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