Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground, by Jennifer Deal

Book coverA few years ago, some of the TomorrowToday team attended a workshop by Jennifer Deal. She certainly challenged our thinking. Her contention was that all the focus on generation gaps in the workplace was obscuring the fact that there are many similarities between people of all ages. She is right, of course – and it is a good “corrective voice” for business to hear. As much as there are certain distinctive characteristics of different generations, each person in your company is nevertheless still that: a person, a human being. As such, they have certain drives, ambitions, requirements and characteristics that should not be neglected.

Jennifer Deal has now turned that research into a book. We were sent a review and summary of the book, and thought you’d be interested in reading about the 10 principles for engaging staff, young and old. This is a great book that will help you not become stuck when thinking about different generations, and not overcompensate for generational differences. However, we do not at all buy into the tone of Deal’s argument. In her public lectures, and in the many articles she has written, she has taken a very tough line proclaiming “there are no generational differences between people”. Anyone with children, or frustrated with younger (or older) colleagues in the office will be frankly amazed at this assertion.

Our take is that she is right and wrong. She is right to assert that you cannot cram people into tiny boxes based solely on their year of birth (“you were born in 1952 so you’re a Boomer, so you must love credit card debt”). Unfortunately, this is precisely how many people use generational theory. It becomes a short hand that allows for bad management of people based on stereotypes. She is also right that generations doesn’t explain everything (as some people seem to claim).

But she is wrong in claiming that there is no such thing as a generation gap. In recent articles circulating on the web, she has dropped the qualifiers listed below from the research and is proclaiming that “everyone in the workplace has the same values”. This is just patently untrue. But one example will suffice to illustrate this. Deal is correct if she would maintain that “everyone wants respect”. That’s true. Everyone does. But different generations show respect (and expect respect shown to them) in remarkably different ways. Older generations see respect as something that is mainly external. For example, I did some work with a church group recently. The biggest complaint that older people had of the young was that they were disrespectful – and the reason they gave was “they do not remove their hats when they pray”. It sounds a small issue when written on paper, but it was a massive issue to the older worshipers. Young people typically complain of a lack of respect when older people don’t “speak straight” to them. For them, being respectful is about saying to your face what I would say about you if you weren’t here – even if it sounds harsh or “rude”. For older people, respect might be almost exactly the opposite of that.

So, we agree with Deal with too much is often made of generational differences. And we like her ten assertions of what is shared commonly by all people in the workplace. But we disagree with her that everyone seeks these things in the same way. We do believe that generational differences (as well as gender, cultural and religious differences) help to explain the differences we see and feel in different people’s attitudes and behaviours.

You can purchase the book at Amazon.com, or Kalahari.net.

Retiring the Generation Gap

How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground

by Jennifer J. Deal

Jossey-Bass – 2006

The generational problem between older and younger workers is not about bad behavior, interpersonal conflicts or the use of technology. It’s about the respective roles of knowledge, job security and power – who has it and who wants it. Generally, older people believe their experience entitles them to make the rules at work.

In an attempt to sort out the issues behind the generation gap, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in San Diego, California, surveyed 3,200 participants born between 1925 and 1986. The survey began in 2000; no one was added to the database after 2005. The survey of individuals from ages 19 through 80 encompassed these generational groups:

  • The Silent Generation – Born between 1925 and 1945.
  • The Early Boomers – Born between 1946 and 1954.
  • The Late Boomers – Born between 1955 and 1963.
  • The Early Xers – Born between 1964 and 1976.
  • The Late Xers – Born between 1977 and 1986. This often-overlooked age group includes many people in senior management.

The respondents were 41% male and 59% female. Women predominated because of a high response rate from nonprofits, which employ more females. Survey results can be interpreted practically to support the following 10 ‘principles’:

Principle 1: ‘All Generations Have Similar Values; They Just Express Them Differently’
The idea that intergenerational groups have different values is a common misconception. When respondents identified their most important values from a list of 40 options, the most common responses in all the age groups were: family, integrity, achievement, love, competence, happiness, self-respect, wisdom, responsibility.

Principle 2: ‘Everyone Wants Respect; They Just Don’t Define It the Same Way’
Older people with experience want to be acknowledged as authority figures. They want their opinions respected and they expect others to carry out their wishes. Younger workers want others to recognize their novel ideas and new approaches. They also expect their colleagues to listen to them. In general, all employees want their colleagues and managers to value their contributions.

Respect directly links to employee retention. Older workers who believe their experience is being ignored or younger workers who feel their talent is not being acknowledged will look for other jobs. Although older workers may complain more, the issue of respect is important for every age group. Older workers tend to work longer hours than younger ones, but that is primarily because they frequently hold senior positions. Since the norm is that older people manage younger ones, a younger employee managing an older person needs to be extra sensitive, because that juxtaposition throws traditional roles out of balance.

Many employees, regardless of generation, believe that being questioned is a form of disrespect. That is not necessarily true. Older workers sense disrespect when younger workers ask questions, but discouraging questions to address that problem ultimately undermines product quality.

Principle 3: ‘Trust Matters’
Many employees do not trust their managers or leaders. As a result, employees spend time protecting themselves against criticism and justifying their actions. They also frequently second guess management’s decisions, leading to decreased productivity. According to the survey:

  • 61% of workers trusted their fellow workers.
  • 64% of managers said they trusted their direct reports.
  • 47% said they trusted upper management.
  • 70% said they trusted their bosses.
  • 54% said they trusted their company.

Trust – which relates to respect – is a critical issue that crosses generational lines.

Principle 4: ‘People Want Leaders Who Are Credible and Trustworthy’
Survey respondents said that a leader’s top characteristics are credibility, trustworthiness, and the ability to listen well and provide visionary ideas. Coaching, dedication and experience were at the bottom of the top 10 list. Interestingly, Early and Late Xers valued experience more than older baby boomers did. Employees at lower organizational levels valued credibility and dependability more than senior executives did.

Leadership is not just for people with titles. Experienced employees with charisma, clout and insight can gain their colleague’s respect and position themselves for promotions. Regardless of your generational bracket, if you want to be a leader, exemplify the values that you expect a leader to embody.

Principle 5: ‘Politics Is a Problem – No Matter How Old (or Young) You Are’
Office politics present a persistent dilemma. Employees of all ages agree that if you are not on the ‘right’ team, inevitably you will be uncomfortable in your environment. Internal politicking weakens morale, reduces productivity and saps energy, making work less enjoyable for everyone. Employees believe that promotions based on politics instead of merit hurt the company’s overall effectiveness. Additionally, employees feel resentful when underqualified individuals are promoted; this causes turnover.

Employees have serious ethical concerns about managers who promote underqualified, but well-connected individuals instead of promoting qualified workers. Fifty-three percent of the survey respondents believed performance counted more than politics, but younger employees and those who rank lower in their organizations believe that politics play a larger role than skill in determining promotions. Older employees thought that ability counted most in promotions.

Workplace politics can cause tensions between management and staff members. Supervisors should acknowledge the existence of office politics and try to manage the ‘competing forces’ in a way that benefits overall productivity. Handling generational issues as communication problems will only exacerbate the stress; instead, address conflicts on an individual basis.

Principle 6: ‘No One Really Likes Change’
Employees across the board do not like change. In fact, only 12 of 2,300 respondents reacted favorably to the concept. Most people see change as an unpleasant experience that disrupts the work process, increases workloads, affects reporting protocols, reduces staff and limits resources.

Change also has a negative affect on management; the higher an individual is in the hierarchy, the more change can threaten his or her career. But the real problem with change is its very nature and how it is implemented. Managers must be honest about the effects of change, how it will be carried out, why it’s being done, and the ramifications for each person, department or organization. For instance, older workers particularly cited the challenge of keeping up with technological advances, and that irritated younger workers. If a change is traumatic, question why it is necessary. Do not expect your employees to be happy about change. In fact, expect resistance. This makes access to information especially important, particularly to younger workers at lower levels who tend to be more critical of management’s communication skills.

Principle 7: ‘Loyalty Depends on the Context, Not on the Generation’
The common perception is that younger employees are not as loyal as older employees. But the real issue is how long employees believe they should work for an organization. Most people – particularly older employees – want to stay with their companies for the rest of their careers.

The majority of respondents did not indicate a particular maximum or minimum amount of time people should work for a company. However, executive-level employees said workers should spend a minimum of three to four years at a company. Younger employees tend to change jobs when the economy is expanding and opportunities are plentiful.

Some companies mistakenly interpret this type of turnover as a sign of disloyalty. Companies that expect loyalty from employees must provide incentives to both younger and older workers. Higher pay, increased resources and more days off can be powerful inducements.

Principle 8: ‘It’s as Easy to Retain a Young Person as an Older One’
Employee retention is a vital issue for any company since finding qualified, experienced workers is difficult. Shifting demographics exacerbates this concern. The baby boom expanded the population between 1946 and 1963, while the number of newborns declined between 1964 and 1982. As baby boomers retire, the competition for available, talented younger workers will intensify. A company with a deep roster of talented workers can recruit and promote from within, and save valuable recruiting and training time.

Demographics, culture and the economy affect employee retention. Survey respondents in all age groups indicated that to retain employees, companies must offer advancement, opportunity and challenges. In addition to salary, employees in all age groups and at all levels of the corporate hierarchy also focus on pensions, benefits, and bonuses.

Principle 9: ‘Everyone Wants to Learn – More Than Just About Anything’
About 97% of all respondents said education was an important factor in determining their level of job satisfaction. Employees indicated a desire to learn new work skills, computer proficiency, team building, problem solving, strategic planning, adapting to change, communication and conflict management.

Baby boomers emphasized computer training while late Xers expressed a high need for public speaking and presentations skills. Executives rated leadership and strategic planning highly, while lower-level workers expressed an interest in learning new skills and problem solving. People also preferred to get live classroom instruction and on-the-job training instead of workbooks, assigned reading, TV programs or computer-based simulations. Preferences in training methods differed according to whether the subject was a hard skill (how to perform a specific task) or a soft skill (learning about leadership or strategy). These preferences were true of all generations.

Principle 10: ‘Almost Everyone Wants a Coach’
Everyone, of any age, wants feedback and coaching. Employees like to know how they are performing and where improvement is needed. Employees also preferred to be coached by a senior co-worker, an expert in the subject matter or a coach they select. The preferred method of coaching was face-to-face, with e-mail and telephone communication rated significantly lower. Employees prefer weekly or monthly coaching sessions. Senior-level employees wanted coaching about career and leadership development skills. Managers should create a coaching schedule using in-house talent, establish an environment that encourages coaching and welcome employees’ coaching suggestions.

Applied Knowledge
When younger workers complain about an older person at work, the conflict often derives from issues related to deference, power and control. In a society where age often is considered a prerequisite to authority, the cultural norm is turned upside down when a younger person manages a team of older workers. But these 10 principles underscore the fact that although there are generational differences, there are also many similarities among employees. This understanding helps bridge the generation gap.

Jennifer J. Deal is a research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in San Diego, California, where she manages the World Leadership Survey and the Emerging Leaders research project.

One thought on “Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground, by Jennifer Deal”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to friend