Optimizing Your Multi-Generational Interactions

Generational differences in the workplace are a major fact of corporate life. Changing demographics in the US workforce and expanding globalization of US businesses has heightened interest in this newest of the diversity challenges. It’s not that we haven’t always had older and younger people working together. Think back to the huge generation gap in the fifties with its rock ‘n roll and the free love and drug culture of the sixties. The large numbers of baby boomer teenagers with their music, clothes, and social justice choices created a phenomenon that rocked society back then.


The workplace however, remained basically untouched as the boomer members joined the stereotypical organization man climbing his traditional career ladder. Emphasis is on the “his” because it was primarily men and, for that matter it was primarily white men. Things changed slowly in the work environment - with emotionally charged beliefs and assumptions being challenged throughout major institutions.


Today’s gap and clash are different than they have ever been in American corporate history. It’s obvious that the US workplace is more diverse than it has ever been. Organizations employ individuals with differences in color, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, and sexual preference. More women are active and in prominent places in corporate hierarchies. Minorities and immigrants constitute a larger share of new entrants in the labor pool.

Ageism has entered the workplace as a form of prejudice that is sometimes subtle and many times blatantly obvious in the daily operations of our companies. The most obvious reason for the chasm is the reality that there are more people of different ages vying for many of the same jobs. Anyone in the business of recruiting and hiring people know that there aren’t enough qualified people to fill the jobs that are needed by companies competing in a global market.


The average age of the US worker is on the rise while at the same time large numbers of energetic younger workers are entering the marketplace. Older workers are increasingly remaining active beyond the traditional retirement age because of economic, social, psychic identity needs and cultural pressures. The Vets are around in many industries. The Boomers are still pretty much in the majority and still have loads of authority. The star performing Gen Xers and some of the superstar Gen Y’s are taking over positions of authority.


This multi-generational stew along with the challenges and opportunities it presents is quickly becoming one of the major diversity issues modern organizations are facing. Many of the younger workers resent the old because they feel older workers are blocking their advancement. Many of the older workers resent the younger ones because of differences in attitudes and opposing values about how work should be done and how people should be treated.


Jobs are lost, landed, and rendered unavailable for young and old because of intergenerational diversity prejudices. Is there a way to bridge this convergence of differing values and preferences across the generations in the workplace? How do organizations make the generational differences work for them rather than against them?


Research has repeatedly demonstrated that younger and older people do have different values, attitudes, and perspectives on how they view the world of work. The diverse generations want to be managed differently and they have different views on customer service. They many times interact among themselves in ways that seem nontraditional and ineffective to the other generations. It appears that stereotypes generally rule. The stereotypes say that the young are perceived by many as better with technology. The old are considered to have clocked more hours of experience on the job and therefore should be viewed as wiser.


The reality is that each of these generations have been shaped by the age cohort they identified with as they became of age – a passage from adolescence into adulthood that occurs somewhere around 18 to 24 years old. Younger people have only known a digital world with computers, cell phones, text messaging, and emails. Does this techno skill make all of them better able to do their job than their older counterparts? On the other hand, seasoned workers have had to learn how to use the new technology after years of manual calculations and face-to-face interactions. Does that necessarily make them all techno peasants incapable of navigating through a digital world? Do the long years they’ve spent in the workforce necessarily make them experienced sages and the younger members green and clueless? I don’t think so!


The answer to these questions is obviously a resounding - NO! It is a fact of life, all older workers aren’t wise, and all younger workers are not better at their jobs because of their ease with technology. Do the younger workers have critical skills they can share with older? Do older workers have critical experience, skills, and talents that they can share with younger workers? Definitely, YES!


The challenges organizations are facing in our highly diverse world are even greater than differences among the old and the young. Layer on these traditional cross-generational differences the challenges being generated by a world market where divergent people and ideas across continents and cultures are happening within the same organization.


Some organizations have already learned to capitalize on the growing age diversity, while others are experiencing generational rifts that are seriously threatening company productivity and effectiveness. Understanding generational cohort behavior makes good business sense. The politicians and advertisers study these diverse generational behaviors in planning their messages. Marketers analyze cohorts in order to understand the underlying mindset the consumer has toward products, issues, and services. Most importantly for our purposes, organizations apply what they learn about generational cohorts in order to understand more about how to manage them, recruit, retain, grow and develop, blend cross generational teams, and to alleviate the problems that occur when values inevitably clash.


Increasingly more than ever before, effective cross-generational working relationships need to be structured and systems need to be in place so that ideas, skills and talents can be shared across generations. Individuals can learn from the best they offer each other.


We call this sharing of resources the talent toggle where individuals engage in an ongoing mentoring and learning dynamic wherein the master teacher and learner moves seamlessly from one person to the other – the younger to the older, or, the older to the younger – as individual expertise is shared when, where, and how it is needed. Age is no longer the basis for power or authority over another. Ageism toward the young or the old eventually becomes a non-issue. The relationship, based on the talent and the skills offered are valued as key to optimizing the organization and the individual worker.

How do small and larger organizations get to this point?

Where do you begin the talent toggle process?


The most sensible starting point in learning about generational differences is to become familiar with the characteristics and belief system of the divergent groups.

Learn more about the Talent Toggle process contact us at

www.gaffney.com         sylvia@gaffney.com

Check out the following charts to compare and contrast generational differences.


Four distinct generations are actively engaged in today’s workplace. These diverse groups are called various names depending on the author. To keep it simple, we are referring to them in as the Veteran generation (Vets), the Baby Boomers (boomers), Generation X (Xers), and Generation Y (Y’s).


The word generation represents an age group. The members of a generation are born within certain parameters of time. The time parameters are artificially set by historical events that occur when members of the generation are at an impressionable age. These events are imprinted forever in the individual’s minds leaving emotional memories. The memories of the significant events shape the individuals in the feelings and belief system these individuals have about authority, institutions, family, fun and finances.


Layer on all the generational information the tendency that people have in the U.S. culture to seek individuality while simultaneously classifying themselves as a member of a group. This human tendency to categorize self, others, things, and events provides insight into generational attitudes and behavior.


Social and Personal identity help us understand more about what makes members of one generation different from the other generations and different from individuals in their own cohort. Review the charts below to compare relevant aspects of social identity and/or personal identity to cross-generational traits and characteristics. The traits and characteristics as listed in these Tables do not by any means apply to each and every generational member. As in anything, exceptions always exist. The collective features below have been reported in generational research studies.







Chronological Age


born between

1901 or 1909 &

1942 or 1945

Currently between

mid 60’s & 100 years

approximately 47 million alive & are 6.5% of workforce

born between



Currently between mid 40’s & early 60’s

approximately 78 million alive & are 41.5% of workforce

born between

1965 & 1977 or 1980

Currently between

over 30 & mid 40’s

approximately 35 million alive & are 29.5% of workforce

born between

1978 or 1980 &


Currently between

8 & 30 years

approximately 80 million alive & are 22.5% of workforce & growing


Life Stage


most are in or about to be in their elder years

most are in their midlife and some in elder years

majority are in their midlife years


some in childhood, are coming of age, or starting work


Race, Ethnicity, National Origin

many were immigrants and lived with prejudice and the notion of separate, but equal for people of color

many were second generation and many believed in and fought for Civil Rights

most accepted diversity as a way of life at home, school and in workplace

many are recent immigrants and are most diverse of all generations, open to and expect diversity



most had and still have respect for church leaders and organized religion

most initially accepted and many rebelled against church leaders   experimenting with other ways to worship God

many are cynical and untrusting of organized religion and church leaders

many returned to or they newly accepted traditional or Fundamentalist religions



most lived with notion that women had a proper place in society

many fought for and experienced the changes of Feminist movement, many were part of the sexual revolution

most view men and women as equals, concerned about disease from unprotected sex

some are returning to traditional male/female roles and abstinence from sex before marriage


Sexual Preference

sex and sexual preference were not discussed,

many are still


with the topic

many saw gays and lesbians as the brunt of jokes, learning to be more tolerant as society changes

gay movement brought to forefront with onset of AIDS, more tolerant than parents

more open and accepting of gays for most, some returning to beliefs of Fundamentalists



few went on to higher education until after GI Bill provided this option

schools expanded to meet needs of this large group and many went to college – some to avoid the draft

were well-educated, comfortable with technology and dealing with large amounts of information

only know a world with the Internet, cell phones, text messsaging & ipods, many have good educational opportunities



loyal to company, team players, conformists, respect for authority

many were & are “workaholics”, individualistic, want personal growth,   conscientious

many were free agents, cynical about authority, require work/life balance

do not expect to pay traditional “dues”, think of jobs as short term and transactional


Economic and

Social Status

conservative spenders, many lived through Depression, many are financially stable

many are financially secure, others need to work, most will do retirement differently than their parents

their self-reliance, pragmatism, and entrepreneurial spirit has afforded many of them a comfortable living

large gap between the “haves” and “have nots” with “haves” able to access technology, parent dependent


Cross-Generational Comparison of Personal Identity Categories:

Beliefs, Values, Attitudes, Traits, Characteristics, and Life Experiences


Categories Defined







opinions or positions a person holds as true for them



standards or criteria that guides a person’s thoughts and actions



learned predisposition to respond a certain way


Traits and Characteristics

distinguishing features or qualities



have respect for authority, did what they were told to do & in return had job security,

were loyal, dependable, willing to mentor, team players, are   committed, 

duty before pleasure, are patriotic, frugal

have conservative spending style, are conformist, willing to self-sacrifice for good of group

protested against authority, optimistic, passionate about

social justice, have a strong work ethic,

self-expression, involved in causes,

strong sense of individuality & spirituality,

responsive to personal growth & development,

many enjoy continual learning,


health & wellness


cynical about authority,

Independent, self-reliant,

pragmatic, flexible,

entrepreneurial, capable of multi-tasking,

have “attitude”, fun-loving,

require work/life balance

open to diversity,

personal relationships with friends important,

environmentally concerned,

technologically literate,

although highly self-sufficient, like to work in teams


most are respectful of institutions & civic duty, patriotic,

some are respectful of older members at work –others are dismissive of older coworkers,

tend to be loyal,

many have been fawned on since birth & regard themselves as special,

environmentally aware,

attitudes are more diverse than any other generation,

cyber literate, heavily involved in social networking,

sociable, prefer group rather than solo,


collaborative, have positive self-esteem


Life Experiences and Exposures

have expertise, wisdom and are willing to mentor

understand workplace politics, many are in positions of authority, have contacts & connections

taking over leadership positions,

depend on self, technologically savvy

want learning opportunities and to be mentored, want ongoing feedback, most are extremely comfortable with technology

People are unique, and have their own personal and social identities. Individuals from different generational cohorts have common characteristics and values based on their coming of age experiences. ALL aspects need to be factored into the mix.