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The Generation Gaps: The unique challenges of the multigenerational workplace

Ashley Ohlin, 30, desk manager for Brown Daub Chrysler Jeep in Palmer Township, often works in tandem with Joey Hoagland, 64, lease retention manager for the dealership.

Despite the over three decades between them, Ashley and Joey have an easy rapport and a good working relationship. Even so, generational differences between the two, and others of varying ages on the sales team, rear their head in the workplace.

Ashley Ohlin and Joey Hoagland of Brown Daub Chrysler Jeep in Palmer Township work well together despite their age difference. -photo by Dawn Nixon

“Millennials could learn a lot about hard work from older generations, but the older generation is sometimes too old school,” said Ashley. “They do a lot by paper and generally aren’t as good with technology. That can make you fall behind in this industry.”

Joey agrees that while it might be harder for a baby boomer like him to learn new tech, he sees a relaxed work ethic among millennials  that frustrates him.

For a dedicated company man like Joey, who is always the first to arrive at work and the last to leave, watching a co-worker pass time on his phone or rush out the door at quitting time is a disappointment.

Joey and Ashley aren’t alone in their observations. Frustrations over generational differences are common on the job.  Three and sometimes four generations are competing for time and attention in the workplace. And with each generation having its own unique value system, how can we all just get along?

What makes a generation?

Understanding what makes each generation tick is the key first step to bridge that generation gap, according to experts.

“A generation is an age group that shares a lifelong set of core values,” said Chuck Underwood, author of “America’s Generations in the Workplace, Marketplace and Living Room,” and founder of The Generational Imperative, Inc., an Ohio-based generational consulting firm.

“Each generation is a reaction to the previous one,” he said. “To understand someone and how they think, you can learn a lot by studying the generation they grew up in.”

Underwood explains that today’s workplace is made up of millennials  , Gen-Xers, baby boomers and sometimes, the silent generation.

Who are all these people? Let’s take a look.

Millennials

They are between the ages of 18 and 37, are eager to learn from elders and have been raised by “helicopter parents,” according to Underwood.  They have a short attention span, due to growing up with smartphones and easy access to information.

Chuck Underwood, expert in generational studies – submitted

Craving variety, they are frequent job hoppers. The average millennial has had six different full- time jobs by the age of 26.

Although over-parenting and technology have done some damage to this generation, according to Underwood, millennials  have positive leadership values like being group focused, idealists and activists.

Generation X

Between the ages of 38 and 54, Gen-Xers are starting to move into the C-Suite and power positions at work. But with baby boomers and millennials  getting all the press, they are the most overlooked.

According to Underwood, Gen X has been failed by the government and their parents, saddled with the effects of their parents’ divorces and student loan debt. Because of this, they are less trusting, don’t like baby boomers and prefer to work alone.

On the positive side of this, Gen-Xers are independent and efficient. Underwood calls them “an army of 59 million armies of one.”

Baby Boomers

They are between 55 and 73 and taking their turn at the top. Boomers have a strong work ethic and care about the good of the organization, yet often struggle to adapt to new technology and ideas.

The Silent Generation

The oldest people in the workforce, they are between the ages of 74 and 92, and can be found still at work in the fields of law, architecture and health care.

Four generations at work

Bill Hartin, founder of FIFO, a filmmaking consortium dedicated to growing and supporting the film industry in the Lehigh Valley, is in his mid 70s, on the border of the baby Boomer and silent generation. He often trains and works alongside millennials  on film sets.

Hartin finds millennials to be less patient. “They want everything ‘now, now,’ ” he said. “And that mindset runs right up against the wall of pre-production.”

The more pre-production you do before you start rolling film, Hartin said, the better the film will be.  While a location manager for “Getting Grace,” a faith-based film made in the Lehigh Valley and distributed nationwide, Hartin taught the young production assistants about the importance of pre-production, which can be a lot of hurry up and wait.

He also kept an eye on their phone usage, making sure they weren’t distracted from the set by their smartphones.

In the end, the young people were grateful for Hartin’s mentorship.

“That’s when one culture meets another,” said Hartin. “By the end of the first week, we were working together smoothly.”

Hartin himself was thankful for the youthful exuberance the millennials  brought to the set. “I’ll never have that sort of ‘get up and go’ again,” he said. “That’s something important that millennials bring to the table.”

Theresa Schwartzer, herself a Gen-Xer, hires and works with all four generations as executive vice president and chief human resources officer for Univest Financial Corporation in Souderton. Schwartzer sees frequent generational differences in work styles.

“Boomers want more face to face meetings,” she said, “verses millennials   who will say ‘Can we do this via conference call?”

Schwartzer sees Gen-Xers and millennials  as more efficient, which helps the company learn to streamline and be more digital. “It’s easy for other generations to come down on millennials ,” she said, “and that’s not really deserved. They get a bad rap.”

Boomers, while not as efficient, are the workhorses of the office, she said. Their kids are out of the house, they don’t want to retire, and they have the time to devote to work.

The Gen-Xers in the middle are sometimes a little forgotten, according to Schwartzer. They are no longer the youngest people at the conference table, but they are not the boomer establishment. Still, they are the ones who are moving into leadership roles.

Schwartzer even has a few members of the silent generation in her office. “Those aren’t the ones to buck the system,” she said.  “You see them but you don’t hear from them. They are doing their job and that’s it, they just like coming to work.”

At Norris McLaughlin, a law firm in Allentown, Patty Pernini, director of human resources, sees  much of the same generational differences in her office.

At Norris McGlaughlin, a law firm in Allentown, a mix of generations work together – submitted

The baby boomers use more paper, while the millennials are paperless. Boomers have more loyalty to the firm, while millennials  aren’t afraid to move on.

The millennials who are young parents also want the option to work from home, she said, while the senior attorneys have less tolerance for not being present in the office.

And the Gen-Xers? Well, they are somewhere in the middle of it all, with one foot in each world.

“Each generation brings a different perspective that benefits us,” said Pernini.

Finding common ground

Each generation has positive values that can benefit the others, says generational expert Underwood, who has been training corporate clients on managing generational differences for two decades.

Underwood recommends that workplaces offer training for managers and employees that highlight each generations beliefs, strengths and weaknesses.

Once each generation understands the other, he said, it’s easier to find common ground. And easier to work together.

“Regardless of age,” said Underwood, “we all want a good quality work life, bosses who are ethical and smart, and stimulating work that gives us purpose.”

While it’s easy for boomers to blame millennials  for the problems in the workplace, and for millennials  to blame boomers, (and for Gen-Xers to blame them both), no one generation is responsible for all the problems. Or all the successes.

Whether 18 or 88, we all want to be valued and respected. Taking the time to understand that is an important first step in fostering a better working relationship between us all.

Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is a career journalist who believes that good journalism can change the world. As the health care reporter, she covers everything from small town medicine to big pharma. You can also find her chasing a good business story in Berks County. She can be reached at dnixon@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, extension 4118.

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