Age Just a Number: Cohesive Office With Different Generations

Generational diversity poses interesting workplace situtations.

ByTORY JOHNSON via logo

July 9, 2007 — -- Lois Schwartz had landed her dream job in event marketing.

"It was very exciting and I was so happy," she said. "It was a higher position than I had ever had before, and I was thrilled."

But the elation went sour as the 54-year-old quickly began to realize that she just couldn't work for a younger boss.

"Maybe that's my ego talking that thinks someone younger than me has less knowledge than I do," Schwartz said. "I think that it's very common for someone older to be a little resentful to someone who is 25 years younger telling you what to do."

Schwartz is not alone. Americans are staying in the work force longer than ever before— postponing retirement or doing away with it altogether. At the same time, Generation Y— those workers born between 1977 and 1991— now make up the largest segment of the work force at 80 million strong. So at some point all of us will work for or with people who aren't our age and who, through nature and nurture, bring different work styles and work ethics to their jobs.

As a work force, we've made great strides with tackling issues of diversity surrounding gender, race, ethnicity and even sexual orientation. But age is the new frontier; generational diversity is something that all of us— workers and employers— must pay attention to.

None of us can completely disavow ourselves of the work styles we bring to our jobs every day. But by removing the emotion and resisting the natural urge to judge people based on age — and opening up the lines of communication — more people will avoid the heartache Schwartz says she experienced.

It starts with the willingness to talk about our differences and not allow the issue of age and generations be a source of silence or friction. Remove the emotion even though it's easy to let emotions get the best of you when you're taking orders from someone who could be your kids' age. But this is business, not personal. And to succeed on the job and not drive yourself mad, it's key to focus on uniting, not dividing, based on those differences.

One way of doing that is to resist the urge to classify people based on stereotypes. The most common: older workers' belief that their young colleagues are inexperienced, impatient and immature — simply because of their youth. On the flip side, the younger workers are more apt to see older colleagues as rigid, inflexible, slow and resistance to change.

Agree to banish that thinking. Remind yourself that we all know people who meet those descriptions, but we also know plenty who don't. Give the people you work with the benefit of the doubt and don't be so quick to ascribe these traits to them based solely on age.

This is perhaps where age differences and bias are most prominent. Older workers believe that authority is earned over time. You put in your years as a manager and leader— and it's through time and experience that you earn that authority. Younger workers reject that line of thinking. Instead, they believe that talent, skills and performance drive authority and hierarchy. It doesn't matter how old I am, if I can prove my value— even in a very short period of time — then I deserve to run the department and make the decisions. I don't have to wait for the calendar to tell me it's time for a promotion to a leadership position.

The war for talent has forced employers to take the perspective younger generation or risk losing their star performers to the competition.

Again, boomers as a whole believe that time drives raises and promotions. After each year or two of service, I am entitled to a raise. And as I put in my time, my career will advance along a track from A to B to C and so on. Logical, right?

Not according to Gen X and Gen Y, which just don't see it that way. They believe performance and results should drive compensation and promotion. They're more apt to ask for a raise after doing a great job on a big project after only six months. They have no qualms about asking to leapfrog titles and positions without regard to protocol that was historically based on age.

This issue matters most when considering how to approach your boss. If you work for a younger person, you should know the sensibilities that he or she brings to the position. The boss' perspective— not yours— will likely determine raises and promotions. You should ask your boss outright: What's your philosophy on awarding raises and promotions? What must I do to earn more money or be promoted? Asking directly helps to avoid any misunderstandings.

Another concern is that older workers aren't comfortable with technology. A prospective employer shouldn't assume; instead ask. Tell me about your comfort level with technology? How would you define your skill level and daily use of technology?

Similarly, if your younger boss is a tech whiz, don't allow it to intimidate you. Instead, be proactive about it. Try saying, "You've no doubt grown up with all things technology and I can see you're strong in this area. I'd welcome the chance to work with you to improve my skills and I hope I can count on your support."

Much of the differences here are driven by technology. Younger workers have grown up communicating personally via text messages, instant messaging and e-mail, so they bring those methods to work. Older people, on the other hand, have long favored face-to-face communication, so when they're delivered orders or news via e-mail it's often seen as rude or inconsiderate.

The solution must focus on compromise. That younger worker needs to get up from behind his or her desk and invest time talking face to face with co-workers. And the older worker must realize that e-mail is often preferred: It is fast and efficient. Don't assume you must always see the boss directly when communicating.

Lois Schwartz is focused on doing just that and her next employer will have a better staffer because of it.

Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. To connect with her click here.

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