The Generational Divide
With interpersonal dissension between baby boomers and younger generations flaring in online forums and family gatherings, some might think conflict is reaching a fever pitch. But the real issue is far more complex, experts say. HR practitioners need to evaluate and assess their workforces and be prepared to take steps to address issues if -- and where -- they exist.
By Lin Grensing-Pophal
Only five short years ago, baby boomers (those born between the years of 1946 and 1964) were eagerly anticipating their retirements, looking forward to relatively comfortable lifestyles funded through pension plans, retirement accounts, 401(k) plans and other investments. The generations behind them -- Gen X (born from 1965-1976) and Gen Y (born from 1977 through 1990) -- were also looking forward to their retirements, eager to step into more challenging and lucrative roles that the boomers would soon vacate.
But then the bottom fell out. The economic downturn hit baby boomers hard, and by association, members of Gen X and Y, as well. Today all three generations (and an emerging fourth -- currently being called Gen Z) find themselves inhabiting the same work spaces, often not so congenially. In fact, their frustration is often played out online and in water-cooler conversations around the country. For HR, recognizing and effectively managing emerging tensions is important not only to maintain harmony in the workplace, but also to address the potential loss of key talent ready to jump ship as soon as new opportunities emerge.
Boomers will age as they have lived -- like spoiled children who don't want to grow up or take responsibility for anything.
. . . [A]fter watching boomers age in such an undignified manner, my generation will be so horrified that we will be glad to be out of here by 60 -- which is good since the chances of any of us having a stable job in the future are pretty much nil.
I'm tired of hearing that Gen Y has a sense of entitlement. Guess what? We are entitled to inherit this country. We are entitled to lead this country into the future . . . Get out of the way and let the line of succession progress.
To all of you ranting here about how self-centered, resource-draining and generally annoying the boomers are, I love you. You took the words right outta my mouth, in the words of one of their generations' most prominent spokesmen.
These are posts from a representative thread of four long pages of comments in response to a Huffington Post article titled "Baby boomers Will Transform Aging in America, Panel Says."
But to what extent do these comments reflect sentiments of the workforce?
Lisa Johnson Mandell, Los Angeles-based author of Career Comeback -- Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want (and a baby boomer herself) is willing to acknowledge some legitimate complaints that she heard while researching her book. The two most common lodged against baby boomers involved:
* Taking time off to attend to their families and expecting younger, single workers to finish the tasks.
* Not adapting to new technology and expecting younger workers to cover for them: "You're so good with computers, would you take care of it for me?"
She also heard complaints from boomers lodged against younger workers, with the most common being:
* Their expectation to be promoted quickly, without having proven themselves, just because they show up.
* Their need for constant, positive feedback.
The situation is awkward, but not insurmountable, she says. In fact, she notes: "Boomers need to recall how much they resented the Silent Generation [the demographic preceding the boomers] for standing in their way."
And Susan Bender Phelps, a speaker, trainer and consultant with Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership in Beaverton, Ore., cites some of her own family members as examplars of the current antagonism.
"All of my children are in their mid-to-late 30s," she says. "They, and their friends, have been grousing about limited career growth in their companies for the last five or six years . . . they blame the boomers who won't retire for their stalled upward career mobility in their organizations."
emotions are the result, she says, of a perfect storm of factors: "Boomers
who can't, or won't, retire. Emergence from the worst recession in decades. Organizational
structures that are flattened so severely there are very few, if any, rungs
left in the career ladder."
Monitoring the Environment to Identify Escalating Issues
For HR professionals, these comments raise some important issues related to workplace relationships and tensions between generations. Of course, these perceptions are simply that: perceptions. Is there any hard data to suggest that this is a current issue or an emerging trend?
The answer to this question apparently varies by geography, industry and organization. Regardless, HR professionals would be remiss if they did not at least take steps to assess and then address the situation within their own workforces.
Lynne Curry, a management consultant with The Growth Company in Anchorage, Alaska, says she was called upon to testify as an expert witness in an age-discrimination case that she saw "was really a generational issue," as she believes there are "generational castes" in organizations.
"Gen X and Gen Y grew up with very high expectations and had egalitarian relationships with their parents, rather than hierarchies," she says. "They expected to come into the organization and move up very quickly. It's very frustrating to come into an organization and know that you can't move up."
Curry says there are also well-qualified employees in all these generations who really aren't that worried about such things "because they're just going to go somewhere else" to find their way to the top.
But, she acknowledges, "there is such a lack of respect from one group to another."
But the current divide is really not a new one, says Jacquelyn B. James, an expert on ageism with the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
"One of the reasons younger people [say they] are having such a hard time [finding a job] is that older people are not fading out and making room for them," she says. But, despite the fact that many economists have looked at the issue from multiple angles, "there is no evidence that, if older workers do leave, it creates opportunities for younger workers."