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

By Steff Gelston, CIO
February 05, 2008 12:07 AM ET

CIO - 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.

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