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The Workplace Generation Gap

The Workplace Generation Gap

In offices across the country, there's a lot of eye rolling going on: Young professionals get exasperated with their older, workaholic colleagues who seem unhappy in their jobs, yet frustratingly stuck in their ways. Meanwhile, older professionals view their younger counterparts as slackers unwilling to pay their dues.

Understanding what drives other generations is the first step toward bridging this generational divide in the workplace, says John Izzo, an author and healthcare consultant with offices in San Diego and Vancouver. "You have to understand that differences in values are just that," Izzo says. "They're not good and not bad. We grew up in different worlds. And at the end of the day, we all want the same things -- to feel respected and valued."

Chuck Underwood, founder and president of The Generational Imperative, a Cincinnati-based consulting firm that studies the generations, agrees understanding is key. "Once you understand any one generation's formative years, you can make sense of that generation's workplace values and beliefs, and the gaps between the generations then tend to shrink," he says.

Here's a look at the events and attitudes that have shaped the four generations currently sharing the current US workplace.

The Silent Generation

Born between 1927 and 1945, this generation started working when managers did the thinking, employees did the work, and organizations were very hierarchical, Underwood says. In this era, employers expected absolute loyalty, and rewards went to team players, not mavericks.

Loyal and hardworking, Silents are excellent mentors to younger generations. "Their generation is distinguished by their skill in building consensus among coworkers," Underwood says. "They are good helpers, good facilitators and good listeners."

The Baby Boomers

Their sheer numbers mean the current 76 million Baby Boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- have always competed fiercely among themselves for jobs and promotions, Underwood says. They are competitive and assertive but put a premium on ethics and values. Because they tend to be workaholics and define themselves through work, Boomers are the "TGIM," or "Thank God It's Monday," generation, he says. Personal relationships with coworkers are important to them, and they are good team builders.

Unlike Silents who generally enjoyed smooth career passages, "Boomers were beat up by downsizings and rightsizings and may have had several employers or types of jobs," Underwood says. "Boomers bring lots of varied experiences to the workplace."

Generation X

Born between 1965 and 1981, Generation X experienced some of the most difficult formative years of any generation, Underwood says. Xers "came of age when governmental and corporate leaders were lying and cheating and failing." As a result, Xers are skeptical, self-focused and self-protective at work. Having witnessed the layoffs of the '70s, '80s and '90s, they distrust big institutions and "assume that every job is temporary, every job is a stepping-stone," he says.

In addition, because they saw their workaholic parents suffer fatigue, illness and divorce (40 percent of Xers have divorced or single parents), "Xers are trying hard to strike a better balance in their lives," Underwood says. For that reason, professions requiring overtime or varied shifts don't match up well with Xers' desire to work steady shifts, avoid long hours and keep their work and personal lives separate, he says.

The Millennial Generation

Born after 1982, Millennials are the most-supervised generation ever, growing up as overscheduled kids with a plethora of adult-led activities to fill their time. "Millennials have grown up very protected and might be soft in the workplace, especially in combative situations," Underwood says.

After seeing how Gen Xers rose with the tech boom of the late '90s and fell with the bust of the early 2000s, Millennials, whose defining event was September 11, are seeking job security in fields like healthcare. "Millennials have a strong sense of nation and patriotism," Underwood says. "They see occupations like firefighting and nursing to be heroic because of all the visuals they saw surrounding 9/11." They are also actively involved in community service and want to pursue occupations that make a difference.

Expected to rival or exceed the Baby Boomer generation in number, Millennials may be forced to compete and work extra hours to get ahead, Underwood says.