Mason Experts Say Workplace Managers Need to Pay Attention to Generational Differences

Posted: July 14, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Generations in the workplace
Today’s diverse workforce has representatives from four distinct generations, each with its own set of values and attitudes.

By Jennifer Edgerly

Do you always work from your office? Or do you occasionally work from home or maybe even the local coffee shop? Have you been with the same employer for years, or are you already planning your next career move?

How you answer these questions could say a lot about you and the generation to which you belong. It also could affect how you connect with other generations in the workplace.

Today’s workforce is the most diverse it has ever been. However, largely due to generational differences, employees are having a harder time relating to their coworkers, Mason experts say.

Michelle Marks
Michelle Marks

“With half of the current U.S. workforce born after 1965, senior management is finding that they are having trouble relating to the younger generations and re-evaluating what is important to their employees,” says Michelle Marks, associate professor of management in the School of Management, who has been studying generational differences in the workplace for the past few years.

“There has also been tremendous growth in the number of employees who have both eldercare and childcare responsibilities at the same time, further complicating what it takes for employers to hire and retain the best employees.”

Just Who Is That Person in the Next Cube?

To better understand how employees can effectively communicate with each other, it is necessary to recognize the characteristics and values that are representative of each group, Marks notes.

Growing up during the Great Depression and World War II has made traditionalists (born between 1928 and 1948) dedicated, disciplined and conservative.

Baby boomers (born between 1949 and 1965), who witnessed a man walk on the moon, the Vietnam War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, tend to be optimistic and achievement-oriented, and are often defined by their job.

Generation X (born between 1966 and 1979) came of age during the Watergate scandal and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and were often “latchkey” kids. They have grown up to be independent; they question authority and are often seen as skeptical.

Growing up in a childcentric and technocentric culture, Generation Y, also known as millenials (born between 1980 and 2000), are often perceived as well looked-after, open-minded and having a strong sense of self.

“Gen Y is a study in contradictions for many people,” says Marks. “This group represents the fastest growing segment of the workforce. While they are a confident group, they are also the product of ‘helicopter’ parents, and many see them as sheltered, having no work ethic and unwilling to grow up.”

How Gen Y Is Changing the Workforce

Since entering the workforce, Gen Y has been trying to change it. Whether preferring to dress casually in the workplace or to have immediate access to senior management, Gen Yers clearly have values that vary from other generations.

Marks, who will speak on this topic in September as part of Mason’s Vision Series, cautions that employers and supervisors need to be aware of generational differences and understand what some of the clash points between generations are. With four distinct generations currently in the workplace, the most common clash points are career perspective, work-life balance and performance management and feedback.

“Instead of aiming to build a legacy or a stellar career like the traditionalists and boomers, Gen Y is looking to build parallel careers,” says Marks. “Because of their desire to build parallel careers and move from employer to employer, Gen Y is typically seen as a generation that is unfocused.”

Predominantly the offspring of baby boomers who are often viewed as being workaholics, Gen Y craves work-life balance. Wanting to be judged by their performance and not the schedule they keep, Gen Y prefers the flexibility that telecommuting and flex-time provide rather than being confined to a 9-to-5 schedule.

Generations at Mason

With 3,329 salaried faculty and staff, Mason’s workforce includes employees of all ages and provides an example of the complexities of different generations working side-by-side in the workplace.

Linda Harber
Linda Harber

As Mason’s associate vice president and chief human resources officer, Linda Harber felt it was her responsibility to expand her knowledge of how the different generations work together. By taking the initiative to educate herself on this topic, Harber believes she is better able to communicate with her staff and also provide the right human resources programs for Mason’s employees.

“Managing a workforce as diverse as the one we have at Mason can be a challenge,” says Harber. “However, with a variety of services and programs we guarantee that there is something for everyone, regardless of what generation they are.”

A closer look at Mason’s employee population finds that 11 percent of salaried faculty and staff are traditionalists, 45 percent are boomers, 31 percent are Gen X and 13 percent are Gen Y. These numbers match up almost exactly with the national averages.

Adding a “Generations at Mason” workshop, which Harber designed, to Mason’s supervisor training program is just one way the university is addressing the generation gap in its workforce. Harber has also presented her findings at Mason’s Faculty-Staff Enrichment Day and will be presenting at the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources in October.

Whether the older generations are managing the younger, or vice versa, Harber stresses that supervisors need to be flexible and understanding of the needs of their employees.

According to Harber, gaining an understanding of how different generations process information and expect to be treated in the workplace is a real eye-opener for some people. Being able to step back and see the bigger picture allows supervisors to realize that sometimes expressions of differences between employees are not personal assaults but instead generational differences.

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