At Work: The Generation Gap Is Narrower Than It Seems

Tensions between Millennials and their employers are often classic power struggles that misleadingly manifest as an intergenerational culture clash. 


“How long is a generation these days?”

                                            – Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?” (New York Review of Books)


Like a “zeitgeist,” a “generation” is a slippery thing that nonetheless seems to have certain definite characteristics. “Millennials,” so-called because they are coming into adulthood at the start of the new millennium, have lately been the subject of intense scrutiny, study, and debate. Are Millennials impassioned or flighty? Lazy or seeking work-life balance? Fiercely genuine or completely unprofessional?

What's the Big Idea? 

One fairly well-documented fact is that those Millennials lucky enough to be employed in the current economy are more dissatisfied with their jobs than were previous generations, and more likely to leave them in search of brighter pastures. These workplace frustrations can erupt into inter-generational finger-pointing and stereotyping, with Millennials judging their bosses as stodgy and authoritarian, while the latter accuse “these kids today” of having their priorities all mixed up.

According to Jennifer Deal, author of Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, the culture clash argument is often a proxy for something much more timeless: the will to power. As an organizational psychologist, researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership, which is affiliated with USC's Center for Effective Organizations, Deal works worldwide on intergenerational workplace communication. Key to avoiding these misleading clashes, she argues, is recognizing them for what they are  – power struggles – and addressing the underlying issue: workers’ universal need to feel valued, mentored, and engaged in meaningful work alongside people they trust.

What’s the Significance? 

Generational differences do exist, but they’re incredibly mercurial and complex. The stereotypes we adopt in daily life to clarify this gap can easily complicate relationships across generations, obscuring people’s actual motivations and the common ground they may share. So while Millennials and Baby Boomers alike can benefit from a nuanced sociological understanding of their differences, the generation gap is only part of the story.

Real progress in the workplace depends upon something beyond intergenerational tolerance. It isn’t a matter of teaching “these kids” to submit to authority or of teaching those in power to loosen up a bit. That kind of learning does happen, but it happens slowly, and never overtly. Real progress requires the kind of mutual respect that can only be built on a recognition of common goals and a willingness to work together to achieve them. In that kind of climate, even within a firmly established chain of command, employees at every level of the company can collaborate to establish a culture they can believe in, and in which they’re eager to invest the best of themselves.

This post is part of the series Inside Employees' Minds, presented by Mercer.

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