Gen Y, Gen X & Baby Boomers: Generation Wars at Work

Think the generation gap went out with bell-bottoms and love beads? Think again.

Think the generation gap went out with bell-bottoms and love beads?

Think again.

Take a good look around your IT department. Who's that cohabiting in the cubes outside your door? Boomers and X-ers and Y-ers. Looks peaceful out there, doesn't it? Don't bet on it. What many CIOs fail to see are the generational tensions simmering among their employees that threaten to lower morale, increase turnover and hobble the IT department's ability to produce wins for the business.

"One of the big struggles companies have is with people who are not playing well in the sandbox," says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing for Yoh, an IT talent and outsourcing services firm. "And it's more pervasive when we talk about the situation we have between the generations."

Relations among the generations seem to be at a low point. Gen Y (defined as people born after 1982) thinks Gen X (spawned between 1961 and 1981) is a bunch of whiners. Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled. And everyone thinks the Baby Boomers (1943 to 1960) are self-absorbed workaholics.

None of this generational trash-talking surprises Linda Gravett and Robin Throckmorton, authors of Bridging the Generation Gap, which advises managers on how to minimize conflicts and miscommunication among the different age groups in order to get everyone working together.

"We had a sense that there was tension," says Gravett, a human resources consultant. "This was confirmed in our research. We found there was a lot of generational tension around the use of technology and work ethics."

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Gravett says their research showed that 68 percent of Baby Boomers feel "younger people" do not have as strong a work ethic as they do and that makes doing their own work harder. Thirty-two percent of Gen X-ers believe the "younger generation" lacks a good work ethic and that this is a problem. And 13 percent of Gen Y-ers say the difference in work ethics across the generations causes friction. They believe they have a good work ethic for which they're not given credit.

Technology is another flashpoint. In a survey conducted for job site CareerBuilder.com last year, nearly half the respondents noted Generation Y's preference to communicate via blogs, IMs and text messages, rather than on the phone or face to face, methods preferred by Boomers and Generation X. Technologically facilitated communication can feel abrupt and easily be misunderstood by Boomers and Gen X-ers.

"I don't need a Gen Y-er texting instead of building business relationships," says Mark Cummuta, who has served as a divisional CIO and director of business systems and information security for Platinum Community Bank. "They run the risk of eroding what we've been doing to build a relationship of trust between the business and IT."

Why the Flashpoint Is Now

Generational clashes in the workplace are nothing new. What is new is the extent to which the retirement of the Boomers will leave employers scrambling to recruit and retain the talent they need. The American Society of Training and Development is predicting that 76 million Americans will retire over the next two decades. Only 46 million will be arriving to replace them. Most of those new workers will be Generation Y-ers.

No wonder that managing the generations effectively is emerging as one of the CIO's most important challenges.

Cummuta has experienced this challenge firsthand. "Dealing with these generations is part of your job as a manager and a leader," says Cummuta, who writes a blog for CIO.com.

CIOs, however, often focus more attention on technology and process than on staff. Yet people are inarguably a CIO's most vital assets. IT departments need a high-octane mix of talent to deliver the improvements and innovation necessary to keep the business competitive. That mix can combust if IT leaders don't understand and respect the needs of each generation of workers.

To address the workforce challenges of the future, CIOs must transition their departments now. This means preparing staff and addressing issues that may be preventing, discouraging or undermining their ability to work in a collaborative manner.

"In the Marines, you can't be selective; you have to take everyone," says Cummuta, who served in the Corps. "Then, you have to build a cohesive team. As a CIO, you have to do the same thing."

Best Practices for Managing the Generations

CIOs have to acknowledge the generational tensions their employees may be feeling. To get everyone working together, they need to understand the unique strengths and weaknesses of each generation and identify the points of friction among them.

To jump-start that process, we've put together a package of stories that explore this IT generation gap. In "Management Techniques for Bringing Out the Best in Generation Y," leadership consultant Deborah Gilburg profiles what's been called "the most high-maintenance, yet potentially most high-performing generation" ever and outlines best practices that can help CIOs recruit, manage and retain this technologically skilled pool of young workers.

But that's just part of the solution. In "Generation X: Stepping Up to the Leadership Plate," Gilburg argues that to effectively manage Gen Y, CIOs need to get Boomers and X-ers to acknowledge the biases they've formed and how that can get in the way of managing an incoming generation that requires strong, focused leadership from them both. To that end, she offers suggestions for how CIOs can get their Boomer and X-er managers to collaborate with their increasingly Gen Y staff.

Of course, it's important to remember that generalizations about the generations are just that. Age defines a demographic, not a person. We are, after all, talking about millions of individuals here, each with his or her own unique set of work and life experiences.

"You have to pay attention to individual personalities," says Cummuta. "Knowing the individual is far more important than thinking about what generation they belong to."

Don't think of it as bridging a gap; think of it as aligning the generations. And alignment is something that CIOs have had a little practice with.

Senior Editor Steff Gelston can be reached at sgelston@cio.com.

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This story, "Gen Y, Gen X & Baby Boomers: Generation Wars at Work" was originally published by CIO .

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