It is not unusual to find employees of two, three and sometimes four generations working in neighboring cubicles in American offices. With wide gaps in life experience and expectations, it is also not unusual to have clashes among these workers. But, as experts say, overcoming such intergenerational conflicts is a key ingredient for creating high-performing work groups and a successful work environment.
Many new college graduates show up at their jobs dressed very casually, stay plugged in to their iPods while they work, and don't understand why that's a problem.
"A lot of the times, the young people don't feel that their employer, their boss or older colleagues understand the needs they have in the workplace," reseacher Anna Matuszewska says. Ms. Matuszewska works at the Hudson Highland Center for High Performance, which helps businesses get the most productivity from their workforce.
"Young people are very much looking for a type of environment, which gives them the opportunity to take risks, to experiment with their ideas and really be challenged and use their brain," she says.
That is one of the findings of a study conducted in 15 countries by a team of Hudson researchers. Lead researcher Susan Annunzio says people of different generations often make assumptions about one another, based on age and appearance. "The older generation or the baby boomers in charge look at the new people coming in and say, 'Ah they are lazy. They expect everything to be coming to them,'" she says. "Where the young kids coming in look at the people in charge and say, 'They are risk adverse. They are set in their ways. They never want to try anything.' This kind of labeling -- all that it does is separate our knowledge. It doesn't do anything to help us get better or improve the quality of the workforce."
Ms. Annunzio observes that each generation grows up in a very different social environment, and that affects how each group sees the world. "The kids coming to the workplace today have taken care of themselves all their lives," she says. "Most of them come from families with two parents that work. They have watched their parents and perhaps their grandparents be laid off from jobs. Of course they are cynical. Of course they don't trust corporations. During their lifetime they've seen scandals in politics. We grew up with heroes, people with integrity -- or at least they appeared that way because you couldn't get inside their private life the way we can today."
Although there has always been a gap between generations, Ms. Annunzio says, advancements in technology have widened this divide today more than ever. "The generation coming into the workplace today has never experienced life without a computer," she says. "So you take the average 21 year old -- that person is coming into the workplace with 21 years of experience using technology. The people running the companies do not have that kind of experience. The older generation or the baby boomers, people like myself who are running companies today, we look at technology as, 'what did I used to do and how can I do it better, faster and cheaper using technology?' The younger generation look at technology and they think, 'Wow, what can I get it to do what has never done before, how can I make it do something totally new?'"
In her book, Contagious Success: Spreading High Performance Throughout Your Organization, Susan Annunzio gives many examples of situations where intergenerational conflict arises… and suggests ways to overcome it. "One of my favorite examples is a young person coming into the workplace today," she says. "They are coming in, they have iPod in their ears, their cell phone in their hands. They are text messaging. They go to their desks. They turn on their computer and instant messaging while they are doing their work. For someone of my generation, our immediate tendency is turn off all this so you can concentrate. Instead of that, look at what they are really doing. They are multi tasking in technology. The world we live in today requires us to multitask in technology."
Ms. Annunzio says technology is also the reason young people around the world are more similar than they have ever been before.
"We didn't find any difference at all between any of the countries we saw. Young people around the world today are so connected through technology. They can talk to each other through e-mail. They can see each other on reality TV."
Susan Annunzio says different generations can work together effectively. She says creating a work environment that appreciates older employees' experience and welcomes the contributions of newcomers can make it possible to capitalize on the widely diverse skills and knowledge each generation brings to the workplace.