When Boomers Meet Gen Xers:
A Communication Gap That Must Be Bridged
"My way or the highway" is not the way to approach a Generation Xer. In fact, warns corporate trainer Judith Rosner, it's a sure bet that attitude will cause a company's young lions to seek greener pastures.
Rosner was speaking at the April 14 Professional Development Summit put on by the Orange County Chamber of Commerce. Her talk was called Bridging the Generation Gap at Work.
After watching their parents' vision of corporate America evaporate with 90's down sizing and superscandals like Enron and WorldCom shaking complacence, employees between the ages of 18 and 34 no longer anticipate staying with a company for any duration.
"They are there to learn and go to the next job," says Rosner, who refers to these members of today's workforce as "moveable employees." Rosner sees the Generation X group as those who saw their parents' "safety nets" - companies where sons followed in dad's footsteps - evaporate. They've also seen their parents struggle with pension fraud, corporate scandal and company down sizing - and have decided they are not going to be caught in the same trap. And while they may not be loyal to the organization as an entity, they are intensely loyal to the people within it. "It's not unusual to see a Gen Xer follow a person who leaves one company for another."
Rosner's theory of Gen Xers' non-committal approach to corporate loyalty can be found in statistics showing that more than half of them come from divorced homes. "Many were latchkey kids who learned to fend for themselves, unlike their "traditional" (born before 1946) or "boomer" (those born between 1946-1964) co-workers. As a result, they are incredibly independent. They like to manage their own time and don't like to be micro-managed. They are also the first generation to put off marriage until later in life - for men, the typical age is 27, and for women 25."
Unlike the older generations, today's younger employees are more comfortable on the information highway and are incredibly results-oriented, according to Rosner. "This is a generation used to immediacy. They do not take, 'I'll get back to you,' as a comfortable answer."
Rosner also cautions employers to seek out their Xers if they are worried about losing them. "They will not come to you... but they also want your feedback on how they are doing and don't want to wait for it in the form of an annual review."
These younger employees may feel stigmatized by the negative stereotypes given them by their older co-workers. For many, their reluctance to make a commitment is seen as lazy, but Rosner says they have a different perspective on the importance of a job - "to them, it's part of their life - not their whole life. They don't have the same dedication to get the job because they do not view it as the foundation of their existence. It's just one part of their life." For many of this age group, being able to work off-site at home or offering flexible hours may be the key to keeping them happy and productive. Rosner urged "traditionals" and "boomers" who run organizations to "get your needs met by trying to work around their (Xer's) schedule."
These younger employees may also seem more skeptical about a company's objective and take a step back when it comes to unethical practices. They've seen many people wiped out financially as a result of what they perceive as misplaced trust in the organization, and they've learned to "question everything and take nothing at face value."
Dana Copeland is senior executive assistant to the president of Advance Testing in Campbell Hall. The 23 year old says she resents the stereotype of being lazy and too young to be taken seriously. "It is difficult to break through to older workers who view me as a kid." Working to gain the respect of people in the company, she's approached several on an individual basis to let them know she's there to listen to their concerns and get them whatever support they need or to help with a particular issue. "Most feel like they'd rather wait for the boss," says Copeland, "but as the president's senior executive assistant, there are things I can do directly if they are willing to give me a chance."
Rosner's advice to traditionals and boomers when dealing with Generation X is, "Get to the point - avoid clichés and long build-ups before you get to the bottom line. Try to use technological communication - email, etc., as this group is accustomed to the superhighway. Don't micromanage these folks. And do them a favor - run interference for them politically and try to overcome dues paying philosophy. For this generation, they've seen what's happened in the corporate world and aren't focused on long term commitments that older people learned at their age when it comes to company loyalty. Basically, boomers -- lighten up!"
And here are Rosner's strategies for Xers trying to get along with those stodgy old co-workers: "Show respect; take your time and be friendly. Face-to-face communication works best with older workers. Be open to learning about politics and the legacy an older employee may have with the company." And while Xers may find those "dinosaur" counterparts technologically impaired and slower moving, "They're a wealth of information about how to deal with internal politics and the corporate world as a whole. Learn from the boomers and learn from their mistakes."
Rosner offered a ray of hope for those dealing with the fast-moving members of the younger generation; "They may be skeptical and constantly hedging their bets, but in one area they are united: they respect competence."
Reprinted with permission from the Hudson Valley Business Journal by Kathy Kahn
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