Four Age Groups at War

A new book identifies four age groups warring at work

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Is there a new generation gap? A disconnect between managers and their younger charges? Consider this real-life exchange, noted in a new book by consultants Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman. A middle-aged manager had come to the aid of a younger employee on a project. The cadet took the time to send a thank-you note, but it was an electronic version, which failed to impress his mentor. "I get a card that basically costs nothing and required no effort to send, after I gave so much," she groused. "Am I supposed to be flattered by that?"

Here's another example the authors cite: hosting a retirement dinner for the boss at an expensive restaurant, a senior manager was appalled when not one of the young employees bothered to dress up. Although the office dress code is casual, he had assumed employees would know enough to freshen up for the occasion, if only as a sign of respect for their leader.

To Lancaster and Stillman, such anecdotes signify an important shift in the corporate world. The co-authors of When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work (HarperBusiness; 352 pages; $25.95) describe a work environment that is becoming ever more fractious. "For the first time in our history, we have four separate and distinct generations working shoulder to shoulder and face-to-face in a stressful, competitive workplace," they write. They divide corporate America into four groups: the hardworking and patriotic Traditionalists; the optimistic and self-absorbed Baby Boomers; the skeptical, technology-savvy Generation Xers; and the barely twentysomething Millennials, who count Britney Spears among their inspirations.

The authors offer many examples of trouble spots where generational conflicts are most likely to explode, from recruitment to retirement. To solve them, they say, managers need to appreciate the groups' unique perspectives. For example: "Technology and Gen X-pectations have changed the pace of the game," they write. "Younger workers in particular are no longer willing to wait week after week to find out whether you're planning to make them an offer. Dawdle too long, and they're gone."

That may be changing, of course, amid recession and soaring unemployment. And Lancaster and Stillman sometimes come to wildly sweeping conclusions: "Millennials are a pragmatic generation with a highly developed ability to sort through information. All their lives, they've had data spewed at them from every direction at warp speed, and guess what? They can handle it!" Is it truly meaningful to generalize about 76 million people?

At the same time, the book offers some thought-provoking insights. The authors believe, for example, that generational differences, while fraught with tensions, can benefit a workplace. They advise employers not to give up too soon on their most experienced workers. "Instead of spending time designing that cherrywood retirement plaque," they write, "companies should get creative and find ways to harness Traditionalists' vast capabilities."

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