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When Generations Collide

Chapter One Excerpt - by Lynne C. Lancaster

Generational Turbulence

The Widening Generation Gap at Work

"You two do that for a living?" asked David's seatmate with a disapproving raise of the eyebrow.

Lynne observed David's reaction from across the aisle and hoped he wouldn't say something flippant. However, recognizing that this was a 3 1/2-hour flight and we had just leveled off, David settled down and took a deep, cleansing breath.

The man's name was Paul. He was a craggy, sixty-five-year-old Traditionalist and the CEO of a national warehousing and distribution company. He liked the aisle seat, a vodka and tonic with no ice, and an extra pillow. He was probably wondering what two upstarts like us were doing in first class, but he was too polite to let on. Instead, he kept probing.

"So tell me, what exactly does a 'generational expert' do?" he asked with a patronizing but unmistakably curious tone.

Lynne jumped in: "We help employers and employees understand the differences among the generations, and we coach them in how to recruit, motivate, manage, and retain the generations more effectively."

As Paul pondered this information, we wondered if he, like so many successful leaders, had ever thought about "generational differences" as one of the fundamental reasons American companies are experiencing hiring challenges, skyrocketing turnover rates, increasing communication conundrums, and plummeting morale. Had he ever recognized that clashes among Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials at work could take a direct toll on his bottom line?

Paul fixed David with a thoughtful gaze. "When I was young, I didn't see eye to eye with my dad. Now my son's in the business and we butt heads all the time. Haven't there always been generational conflicts in the workplace?"

"Sure," David responded. "The generations have always clashed. But the generation gaps in the workplace today are wider than ever and of greater strategic importance. Think about it. Americans are living and working longer. The average life expectancy at birth in the year 1900 was forty-seven. Today it's closing in on eighty. Suddenly, four generations are facing off across the conference table instead of just one or two."

"Okay," Paul replied, "but what's the problem? As I see it, more generations mean more available workers."

"That's a good point," David responded. "But what most people overlook is that each generation brings its own set of values, beliefs, life experiences, and attitudes to the workplace, and that can be the problem. Take your generation, the Traditionalists. You grew up under the shadow of the Great Depression and felt lucky to have jobs. If we have learned one thing in our research, it is just how strong Traditionalists' beliefs are when it comes to patriotism, hard work, and respect for leaders, among other values they bring to the workplace."

Paul nodded.

"Now, compare that to my generation," David continued.

Paul eyed David's T-shirt and parachute pants "travel ensemble." "Hmm, and exactly what generation would that be?" he queried with a raised eyebrow.

"Generation X," David responded proudly. "We grew up seeing too many businesses downsize or merge, and we learned that the last thing we could trust was the permanence of the workplace. Let's face it, by the time we hit the job market, the employer-employee contract was already out the window and Social Security was headed down the toilet. And it sure didn't help that we've always been told we would never do as well as our parents had. As a result, we need to be recruited, rewarded, and managed differently from your generation if you hope to make us a contributing, loyal part of your workforce."

Paul turned back to Lynne. "I assume you're an Xer, too?"

"I must admit to actually being a Baby Boomer," she responded, blushing. David rolled his eyes and wanted to grab an airsickness bag.

"So, Boomer, what's your story?" Paul demanded.

"Well," answered Lynne, "My generation is different from yours and David's. When you've had to vie with eighty million peers every step of your career, you're bound to be competitive. We were raised by parents who convinced us we could make the world a better place; as a result, we tend to be idealists. We came to the workplace with a strong desire to put our own stamp on things.

"Yeah, I've definitely locked horns with a few of you in my workplace," Paul confirmed with a nod of his head.

Lynne continued: "You have to put the generations in an economic context. The long economic expansion of the 1990s created a situation of almost full employment in the United States. David's generation was promoted rapidly and was offered more financial and job growth opportunities than ever in history. Rather than paying their dues for a number of years, they've been able to demand that companies adapt to their ways of doing things. This has created both a culture clash and a resentment backlash as the generations collided around issues of fairness and opportunity.

"At the same time, low unemployment levels created major staffing problems. For example, one of our clients who owns a box factory in Catawba City, North Carolina, complained to us in 2000 that his town's unemployment rate had dropped to .8 percent! Imagine trying to recruit a workforce to operate a noisy plant that smells like diesel fumes and rotten eggs when the same workers can find jobs at an air-conditioned mall for the same money -- and enjoy the scent of Mrs. Fields cookies!"

"Now hold on there," Paul interrupted. "Let's face it, as soon as our economy takes a nosedive, the younger generations are going to have to come begging for jobs."

"But that's only part of the picture," David countered....

There's a talent war out there. Because Generation X is just a little over half the size of...

From When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

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When Generations Collide
by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman
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