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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Think you’re bad at math? You may suffer from ‘math trauma’

Even some teachers suffer from anxiety about math.

Image credit: Getty Images
Mind & Brain

I teach people how to teach math, and I've been working in this field for 30 years. Across those decades, I've met many people who suffer from varying degrees of math trauma – a form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.

Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

How KGB founder Iron Felix justified terror and mass executions

The legacy of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who led Soviet secret police in the "Red Terror," still confounds Russia.

Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Felix Dzerzhinsky led the Cheka, Soviet Union's first secret police.
  • The Cheka was infamous for executing thousands during the Red Terror of 1918.
  • The Cheka later became the KGB, the spy organization where Russia's President Putin served for years.
Keep reading Show less