Workplace conflicts are a fact of life.  Books, seminars, conferences, articles, etc. address them regularly. The diversity has always generated challenges and probably always will, just as we will always be working on solutions and ways to handle difficult conversations, confrontations and situations.

One of the most recent challenges is the generational divide — the differences among the silent, boomer and gen-x generations — each one bringing distinctly different life experiences, values and attitudes to the workplace.

Because the topic is so extensive and rich with important information, we have invited generational expert Chuck Underwood to explore the topic with us.  Founder and Principal of The Generational Imperative, Inc., Chuck is the creator, host and co-executive producer of the PBS series “America’s Generations with Chuck Underwood,” and author of “The Generational Imperative.”  


TTC. We hear so much about generational differences— thoughts, values and behavior—it must be very challenging for employers to recruit employees of multiple generations.  What are the specific generations that companies are recruiting now?

CU. The “First-Wave” Millennials, whose current age is 18 to 31.  They’re still arriving in adulthood, so we don’t yet know in what birth year this generation will formally end, but will probably be in a few more years.  GenX, whose current age is 32 to 48, the Baby Boomers, aged 49 to 67, and a noteworthy number of Silents, age 68 to 86, are remaining in the workplace in many industries.

TTC. What are some of the greatest differences between the generations?

CU. Each generation brings unique – and very powerful – Generational Core Values to the workplace.  Within all four generations, you’ll find differences in work ethic, skills, strengths, weaknesses, needed training, attitudes towards teamwork vis-à-vis solitary work, work-life balance, preferred compensation and benefits, preferred ways of being recruited, onboarded, managed, and retained, and much more.

TTC. Are there any similarities, particularly when it addresses work?

CU. All generations want to be respected, productive, fulfilled, cooperative, employed by honorable and compassionate executives, and receive financial stability in their lives as a result of their work.

TTC. When an employer determines the qualities needed in an employee and is ready to hire, would different methods of outreach for each generation be necessary?

CU. In any industry, all executive, managerial, and Human Resource personnel must be trained in Generational Workforce Management in order to successfully recruit the best employees from each generation.  Recruitment tactics vary by generation from the copy used in the job ad, the channels used to advertise the opening, and the method/media by which prospects should respond to it, to the type of information needed on the resume. It gets much more complex when it’s time for the initial interview because each generation is likely to possess unique values, attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses. The interviewer, therefore must be aware of all of these factors and know which questions to ask and which answers to probe more deeply.

TTC. How might the actual outreach messages need to differ?

CU. The message that advertises the job opening will require certain basic and universal information that explains the position.  But then, to entice the best candidates to respond to it, the “adjectives” might change for each generation that is targeted.

If the job is entry-level and targets young Millennials, such matters as growth potential, flextime, paid leave, retirement savings plan, continuing education, and strong mentoring programs are important.

If the job ad pursues GenX, predictable work schedules, savings plans, college savings plans for their children, rewarding individuals and not just groups, and self-reliance and independence are likely hot buttons.

With Boomers, the job ad should mention wisdom, knowledge, experience, maturity, willingness to go the extra mile, teamwork, retirement and health insurance plans.

TTC. You mention onboarding as the next step after recruiting.  Is that a relatively new term?  What does it mean?

CU. Onboarding became a popular term when Millennials entered adulthood and the workplace, beginning in the early 2000’s.  This generation, for a long list of reasons, had come of age as the most adult-supervised generation in American history.  So-called “helicopter parents”, and educators, and religious leaders probably OVER-parented them and they received constant guidance and assistance.  Well, beyond the Millennials’ control, their generation now expects and needs similar close supervision and help in the workplace, and especially in the critical first few days, weeks, and months on the job.  So as a generational consultant, I work with employers to create refined onboarding programs that begin the moment a Millennial accepts the job offer.

TTC. We hear a lot about the fact that different generations have different work ethics.  What can an employer say during onboarding that might ensure an understanding of expectations?

CU. It is especially important, during the job interview and then again during the onboarding, that employers clarify the time commitment, entry-level pay and position, promotional opportunities, and what a day-in-the-life is going to be like, hour by hour.  The good and the bad.  The key is to make sure the new hire is not negatively surprised during the onboarding period.  And each generation has its own unique list of “negative surprises”, so employers and interviewers must be trained to present customized information to each generation’s new hires.

TTC. Can you give us an example of a negative surprise?

CU.  With Millennials, the negative surprises – things they weren’t expecting – might include such matters as undesirable tasks and duties, lack of good supervision and mentoring, unsophisticated technologies at the workplace, and others.  With GenX, the negatives might include longer or more irregular work hours than expected, being micro-managed, lack of recognition of individual achievement, slower promotional opportunities, and others.  With Boomers:  lack of teamwork and camaraderie; unethical bosses; limitations on growth and advancement; and others.

TTC. What are some generational differences in attitude towards work? I’ve heard, for example, that boomers are considered workaholics and GENX-ers are slackers.

CU. The Boomers remain the Golden Generation in the American workplace:  remarkable work discipline, willing to care about the entire organization and all employees, ethical, experienced, mature, and on and on and on.  Are there exceptions?  Of course.  But generational study is all about how any one generation significantly “moves the needle” in a significant direction:  in the workplace, marketplace, classroom, house of worship, or living room.

GenX is the Work-Life Balance Generation.  They don’t want their careers to intrude upon their personal time.  They’ll give their employers a very productive workday, but they don’t like pop-up meetings after hours.  This generation came of age when bosses were getting richer and workers were losing their jobs to other countries, so X-ers haven’t seen much two-way loyalty between boss and subordinate.  As a result, they are career free agents.  They are often more comfortable working alone than in groups.  Very innovative and entrepreneurial.  They love to be handed a task that they can take from Point A to Point Z.

Millennials have a wonderful career spirit; they want their work to count and, like the Boomers, they want to make the world a better place.  Optimistic, idealistic, empowered, and engaged.  But they’ve gotten off to a rocky start with employers because they are America’s most restless-ever job-hoppers.  The average 26-year-old has already had 7 employers.  They’re excellent with technology and have good interpersonal skills.  But they came of age with instant access to the world of information, and beyond their control, this has given them short attention spans, so they sometimes struggle with long-term tasks and projects.  They have demonstrated a flawed sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations about pay, position, and promotion.  But any day now, they’re going to settle down and dig in.  And when they do, they’ll be a magnificent career generation.

TTC. There are many different styles of learning and absorbing information generally.  Are there differences among the various generations?

CU. Boomers like to learn and be trained by other human beings.  GenX is comfortable with online learning.  The Millennials, to the astonishment of many employers, want and need to be trained by people, not software.

TTC. What might be the biggest challenge and create the most conflict with a multi-generational workforce?

CU. The answer:  the challenge and conflict arise because the generations don’t understand their differences and where they came from.  The solution is very easy: Management must be trained in Generational Workforce MANAGEMENT and STRATEGIES. And all employees must be trained in Generational Workforce DIVERSITY.

TTC. Are there differences that are insurmountable?

CU. No.  Not with the proper training.  Without the proper training, these generational differences will diminish a company’s work environment, culture, productivity, reputation, and bottom line.

The next Q&A with Chuck Underwood will address the topic of generational differences in training and motivating employees.