Dealing with Workplace Conflict
S.F. City College Fighting for its Existence

Generational Differences in the Workplace

Workplace Attributes of Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y

I have often observed that today’s college students differ from prior generations in two important ways: they do not have as strong a work ethic and their right-brain activity is not as well developed. I have previously blogged about both problems. Most recently, I blogged about ‘digital dementia,’ a term that describes the loss of right-brain skills such as mental functions involving memory, processing of visual, auditory stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, creativity, and prosodic language functions such as intonation and accentuation, all of which are lateralized in the right hemisphere. A recent study out of South Korea indicates these abilities have been stunted in young people because of excessive exposure to digital devices such as smartphones.

Now, a new study by the Ethics Resource Center adds to our understanding of generational differences in the workplace by analyzing behavioral patterns of four groups: (1) Traditionalists (1925-45); (2) Boomer (1946-64); (3) Generation X (1965-80); and (4) Millennia/Gen Y (1981-2000). I have summarized the findings below. The most important point for me is the decline in workplace ethical values over the years explains some of the problems we are having today with respect to finding enough well-skilled Americans to do high-tech jobs and having to import workers from overseas to do these jobs. Here are the main results focusing in on ethical traits.

Traditionalists exhibit characteristics of hard work, respect for authority, and loyalty.

Boomers are hard-working, idealistic, and committed to harmony

Gen X's are entrepreneurial, flexible and self-reliant, and comfortable with technology

Millennials are tech-savvy, value diversity, and skilled multitaskers.

Notice how the ethical values decrease with decreases in the age group. On the negative front, the following traits are mentioned. Traditionalists are conformers and resist change (not so terrible in my mind). Boomers have a sense of entitlement and are self-centered (can be a problem in the workplace, although I would identify entitlement with Gen Xers). Generation Xers are skeptical and cynical, lazy/slackers, and question authority figures (does not make for a healthy workplace). Millennials have a short attention span, not loyal to the employing organization, and lack basic literacy skills (critical problems that, I believe, will lead to China overtaking us as the main economic power within twenty years).

The results are generalizations for sure. As the study concludes, each generation perceives ethics and culture differently from the others. While companies do not have to redesign their programs to these cohorts, they would be wise to tailor their messaging so that company commitment to integrity is heard by all employees. The key is how to do it.

The basic question from a societal ethics perspective is should each generation in society conform to one set of workplace standards or should those standards be changed to conform to the behavioral patterns and beliefs of each succeeding generation. The answer lies somewhere between. We cannot ignore ethical values like honesty, respect, integrity, responsibility, and accountability -- traits that have defined the workplace in the U.S. for decades -- simply because Generation Xers and Millennials are not as attuned to these values as their predecessors.

The key is how to get today's generation to embrace these values in the workplace and in life, and that means a different way of relating to them. I see it all the time in the classroom. Straight lecturing turns them off regardless of the validity of my points and ethical importance of what I say. I use technology and social media to get my point across and it works much better. This is where today's companies must go if they want to create an ethical culture. Instead of the old code of conduct on a piece of paper to be filed away and never looked at, companies need to develop videos and use technology-oriented websites to illustrate why ethics in the workplace is the key to long term sustainability and success in business.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 5, 2013