Generational Diversity: Peace or War?

by Michael Haberman on June 30, 2011 · 1 comment

It is no big secret that there are FOUR generations of workers in today’s workforce. This diverse group of people include what are called the TRADITIONALS (born pre-1945 and rapidly decreasing); the BABY BOOMERS (born 1946 to 1964, many of whom were retired and would be today except for the sucky economy); GENERATION X (born 1965 to 1980, a small generation in size); and GENERATION Y or Millinials (born 1981 to 1995). The big question that seems to be asked today is this generational diversity a source of strength or is it a source of conflict? Peace or War?

One the one hand we have writers like Sherri Elliott-Yeary, CEO of Optimance Workforce Strategies and author of the book Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences Into a Competitive Advantage, who suggest that the diversity of ages in a workforce can be used to make the company a higher performing organization, but it takes analysis, development of age appropriate communication methods and inducements, and training to help all parties overcome the natural divisions in points of view and methods of working. Elliott-Yeary said. “Educate your staff on why recognizing generational diversity is important and then begin cross-generational mentoring. Change your rewards system based on what appeals to different generations. Look at how you’re hiring. It’s important that you offer leadership and an avenue for discussion on this to increase organizational performance.” (S0urce: Desegregating an Age-Diverse Workforce by Ladan Nikravan)

Larry Johnson, co-author of Generations, Inc., said “People become enemies when they don’t understand the other side or are
threatened by the other side.” This is the war side of generational diversity. This side is evident in the post of William Tincup entitled Succession at Your Company: Why the Young and the Old Secretly Hate Each Other. In his post William says it is time for the old folks to get out of the way. He says “We’re all avoiding the concept of… dude, your time is up.” To William succession is a battle groun and a source of anger and distrust. He says “Feel the rage just beneath the surface of succession.  IMO, rage is always present… whether or not we want to acknowledge it is up to us.  The succession conversation is inherently wrought with pain.  Pain = growth.  Not that growth is good or bad, just inevitable.  Again, a change is gonna come.  Let me suggest a new direction for those who care deeply about succession both in terms of process and substance.” William then goes on to suggest an age specific mandatory retirement starting at age 63 where your hours get cut and by age 67 you are out the door. William doesn’t even see the value of older workers as mentors. He wants to know how the organization failed and why it failed, then get out of the way. He says “…everything else can be learned – on the job – by the younger generation.” He says the older generations made it up as they went along anyway.

What bothered me the most about William’s solution was that it was based on just age. No consideration of contribution. And I responded in a very viseral manner. (As you can guess from my picture I am a baby boomer, on about to make a decadal change in age. Not willingly  or not gracefully anyway.) I said in my comment that if I was not going to be shown that I am not contributing and I am just be pushed out the door because of my age I was not going to be willing to “pass the baton”, rather I was going to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine in the next generation.

Now I recognize that many baby boomers, and certainly traditionalist, don’t want to be in the workplace. But they have to live. But in doing so they have to be making a contribution. I am not for keeping people who are not pulling their weight. But not contributing is not the exclusive domain of the “older crowd.” To be fair to William he did say that we can make succession a more peaceful and workable process. He concluded his post with the statement “The baton being passed is the only thing that is really important.  We can bond upwardly and/or downwardly and actually give a shit enough to convey critical things or NOT.  The choice is ours.  All of ours.  If we really care about our legacy, then succession will be easy AND graceful.” I am sure his age based mandatory retirement is not the answer.

So what is the answer? Provide us with your suggestions if you would.

I have written numerous times on generational differences. Here is one post called AgeISM Part 2: The Roots of the Bias. I explain that we baby boomers started the trend, much to our dismay.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul Hebert June 30, 2011 at 8:56 am

I missed William’s post initially – went back and read it after seeing this one. I’d agree that it’s pretty short-sighted to think that age is the defining criteria for “contribution.” I also know, that the older you get the less you like to see that be the case. I would imagine that as William approaches his 60’s – and if he’s working at a “firm” where he’s not in charge – he might have a similar reaction to a mandatory retirement policy. It’s always about who’s ox is getting gored eh?

This whole discussion disappears if we can define “contributing. Unfortunately, in absence of real definition of contributing – we look for other criteria – and an easy one is age.

When work was mostly a physical thing – age mattered. As we move to (or are in) a knowledge economy – age isn’t a barrier any more – in fact it may be a blessing.

Instead of forcing out oldsters to “make room for the youngsters” – why not redefine what the youngster can do? Is up or out the only option? That seems like an “old person’s point of view.”

Using age as a criteria is a lazy way to manage succession IMHO.

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