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Defining the Generation Gap in the Workplace

Are their Shared Values Among Workers of Different Generations?

Generation gap analysts believe that shared experiences condition generational groups to see and act differently than other generational groups; hence, the emergence of a generation gap. These generational differences, they believe, cause us to communicate and use technology differently and have different world-views and perspectives on family and work-balance. Just as two-family wage earners created a gap in the workplace, today technology-savvy, social media-driven workers bring certain values to the workplace that differ from past generations.

There are currently four generations in the workplace:

Traditionalists: born before 1945; the values of these workers have been influenced by the Great Depression and World War II. A strong work ethic and the “greater good” exemplifies the values of this generation.

Baby Boomers: born between 1945 and 1964; the values of these workers have been influenced by the desire to have more opportunities and increased wealth than their parents. These worker are goal-directed and customer-service orientation.

Generation X (Gen Xers): born between 1964 and 1980; this is the first generation that questioned whether they would have it better than their parents. They are adaptable and influenced by emerging technologies. These workers are willing to buck the system.

Generation Y or Mellennials: born after 1980; social-media driven, technology-oriented, motivated by self-interest. These workers believe more in ethical relativism and less in the existence of a set of unchanging societal values [my observations and not that of the study cited below].

The descriptions above are, of course, generalizations. But they do define some important distinctions between workers and, therefore, values-driven workplace behavior over the past seventy years. Managers need to be aware of these differences and act in accordance with the differing values in organizing and managing workers in the workplace. The differences influence workplace culture and, therefore, workplace ethics.

According to research by Ben Rosen of the Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials all share the same top five expectations of their employers. They also agreed in their views of what an ideal leader should look like. The study found that all three generations expected the following from their employers:

  1. To work on challenging projects.
  2. Competitive compensation.
  3. Opportunities for advancement, and chances to learn and grow in their jobs.
  4. To be fairly treated.
  5. Work-life balance.

All three generations agreed that the ideal leader:

  1. Leads by example.
  2. Is accessible.
  3. Helps others see how their roles contribute to the organization.
  4. Acts as a coach and mentor.
  5. Challenges others and holds others accountable.

The top-rated need among all generations was the need to be respected [but, do they give equal respect in return?]. Other shared needs were competence (feeling valued as knowledgeable, skilled and experienced), connection (through collaboration with co-workers) and autonomy (the ability to exercise self-control within specified guidelines to achieve shared goals).

All generations desire continuous employment and are highly committed to good employers. A 2000 Catalyst study of 1,200 Gen Xers found that 85% of respondents said they cared a great deal about their organization’s future, and 83% said they were willing to go beyond what is expected to ensure the success of their organizations, countering prevailing wisdom that Gen Xers lack loyalty to their employers.

I find these studies to be flawed in one important way that brings into question the validity of their findings. It is based on self-reporting. Ask someone whether they care a great deal about their organization and I bet they answer the way the questioner expects, not the way they truly believe. Ask a worker whether they are committed to good employers and I bet more than 50% believe not necessarily so but 75% plus say ‘yes’ to the questioner. I have no proof of this observation, but it is based on many years of teaching Gen Xers. I also find in Gen Xers that respect is not automatically given simply because a person is in a position of authority.

I believe the wild card that distinguishes all generations from Gen Xers is today’s social-media-driven generation driven by self-importance and entitlement, which translates into potential conflicts in the workplace among worker groups of different generations. 

A valid research study would be one that observes the behavior of different generations in the workplace rather than one that basis its conclusions on self-reported data. The way an individual pursues one’s beliefs through workplace behaviors; interacts with others; and deals with workplace conflicts speaks volumes about the character of that individual. Most important, workplace ethics is based on consistent values and virtues such as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, treating others fairly and with respect, responsibility and accountability. These should be immutable characteristics of behavior and not affected by changing values of different generations of workers. In my experience it is these virtues that have changed over time and define generational differences in the workplace.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 30, 2014. Professor Mintz teaches at the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: