HR Management & Compliance, Talent

How HR Leaders Can Avert ‘Generational Wars’

It can be argued that assimilating today’s workforce into a cohesive whole has never been more difficult. Even in a relatively booming global economy, we see the fight for margins tighten— and the challenge of building and sustaining employee engagement as soldiers in the larger battle grows more daunting.teambuilding

Embedded in that struggle is an interesting dimension that can and often does go unnoticed: The fact that in this country we now have what might be described as four generations all converging in the workplace.

Let’s take a moment to define that landscape.

First there are the oldest workers—the Baby Boomers, the post-WWII offspring that were part of the great economic explosion; followed by (and the terms and the dates are subject to varying interpretations) Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979), Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1994), and Generation Z (from 1995 on) and one begins to appreciate the scope of the challenge.

Embedded somewhere in the above are the Millennials—and though many associate that age group with Generation Y, even that is dependent on the eye of the beholder. In researching this article, I came across a mindboggling number of time frames. (And I won’t dare to mention Xennials and a few other “groups” that some choose to categorize.)

Here’s the take-away: There is a significant multigenerational component at play in today’s workforce, and the background and perspective of the players can and does greatly impact outcomes.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun…

The potential for cross-generational conflict is high and understandable. No one in his or her right mind would assume a 60-year old sees work and job responsibility in the same way as a newly-minted 22-year old college graduate.

But to assume that the barriers to effective generational harmonization is a problem unique to the 21st century is naïve – one only has to go back to the era of agricultural dominance or the early rise of the industrial revolution that followed to find similar discourse.

Sometimes that involved younger workers struggling to find a place in the pecking order and at other times it meant pushing older workers out the door to replace them with more productive hourly wage earners—but “cross generational conflict” isn’t a phenomenon that is only now seeing the light of day.

…But the Light of Day Shines Brighter Now

What is different?

  • Our ability to share information, and to call out inequities or disagreements in this—the virtual communication age—is the greatest in human history
  • There is more in-depth labeling of different age ranges—their perspectives, backgrounds, and needs
  • Greater attention is paid to the issues and the potential for problems

What Does This Mean for HR Leaders?

First, we have access to a far greater depth of understanding of the motivators for employees than ever before. Those supervisors or Human Resource professionals who avail themselves of that information are potentially far better equipped to put together the pieces of the employee mosaic.

Second, leaders who use the above information to synchronize and coordinate the work of their employees—to include tapping into the issues of purpose and direction in not just job but career—are infinitely better equipped to head off generational conflict because they understand many of its root causes.

Third, whether they’ve been around for thousands of years or not, generational problems remain quite real.  To address them we must first understand the reasons.

The Breaks That Lead to Generational Wars

Here are some of the most common trigger points that often lead to larger issues.

  1. A lack of transparency in the workplace—leading to failures of communication. Like racism or bigotry in society, generational biases can only grow if left to fester in the dark. Progressive leaders not only embrace an atmosphere of open dialogue, they demand it.  That also requires a seat “at the table” for all age groups, not just the tenured employees.
  2. Differing interpretations of the role of work, including where and how it’s conducted. Nowhere is this more glaring than when contrasting a Generation Z worker with a Baby Boomer.  The former is the product of the technological age—able to assimilate information from multiple sources and prone to grow bored with traditional work assignments. The latter comes from a “brick and mortar” mentality where learning is generally linear and even the hours assigned to job responsibilities are heavily engrained. Think there could be issues if Bob, the 60 year-old sees Susan the 23 year-old decide to skip out on the staff meeting because she has a virtual client meeting at the same time?
  3. Learning and assimilating information. Again, the traditional Boomer approach smacks of training manuals, classroom instruction, and testing. Fast forward to Y and Z workers and the notion of rigid, pre-determined schedules for a generation used to moving quickly summons up images of pioneer wagons rumbling onto the plains—dragging a space ship behind.
  4. Perspective.  As a Baby Boomer, I went to work believing that if I did my best, produced, and demonstrated value to my company I would be rewarded with the business equivalent of “academic tenure” —meaning life time job security would be mine. I was, without question, terribly wrong. Succeeding generations—callused perhaps by the realities they were able to see firsthand—are far savvier than my age group. Many, especially younger, workers suffer none of the illusions I did. Work, it might be said, remains important but it often does not define younger generations as it might have the Boomers. I would argue this is a far healthier approach to work.

There is a simple but compelling call to all HR leaders regarding the points outlined above: The very best will seek to understand the motivators and the passions of the workers that comprise their organization while factoring (and celebrating) the generational differences. They will carefully weigh the trigger points and use that recognition to carve out common ground, while less informed counterparts continue to wage the “generational war.”

Perhaps Shakespeare said it best sometime around 1600 when he penned a story on the same timeless subject in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man.”

Tim Cole Tim Cole is the Founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance. His book, The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career is an Amazon Best Seller and offers practical direction to both senior leaders and employees on how to cultivate a rich culture – and ensure a significant work experience. You can learn more at or follow Tim @officialtimcole


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