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Tension at the Workplace: Gen X vs. Gen Y

To all project managers, quick! Pop Quiz!

a)      Did LOL ever mean “lots of love” to you?
b)      Do you remember a time before (or during) the Walkman?
c)       Was there ever a point in your life when perming was all the rage?
d)      In your heart, will Pluto always be a planet?

You probably realized by now this isn’t a real quiz. Nor is it a sadistic exercise to make you feel old. But what it should do is show that times have changed—and the workforce has changed with it. As each passing year increasingly necessitates cross-generational interaction, there is bound to be some cultural clashes along the way.

 The Princeton dictionary defines culture as “the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization”. In this light, working with someone from a different culture doesn’t always mean working with someone of a different nationality. Cultural differences can boil down to your age.

This might explain why so much tension arises between the Baby Boomer, Generation X and Generation Y cultural groups. That’s right…cultural groups. Each of these generations respects a unique set of values and ideologies. These ideals can begin to conflict if not clearly communicated and understood within the team. So when cross-generational frustrations emerge at the workplace—ask yourself: Is this an issue of cross-cultural miscommunication?

Cross-cultural miscommunication between generations can occur almost automatically. Why wouldn’t it? It is very easy to assume that a co-worker who shares commonalities in language, nationality or education may also share similar outlooks in relation to work ethics, ideas of job satisfaction, motivational incentives and so on. But this is not the case.

For instance, while Generation X workers may find satisfaction in job stability, career growth and financial gain, Generation Y workers often find value in a proper work-life balance and the overall emotional fulfillment of the work. To put it crudely: if it ain’t fun, it ain’t done.

But don’t get it wrong. Generation Y workers will work hard—except their approach to work is what differs from previous generations. A Generation Y worker may even leave a job if it does not offer flexible or negotiable hours. The logic being: why work 8 to 9 hours a day if the work can be successfully delivered by noon? Such thinking patterns should not be interpreted, rather mis-interpreted, as lazy or self-centred by co-workers and leaders from previous generations. It’s just different.

Different isn’t bad. It is important for project managers to recognize the great potential Generation Y workers can bring to the workplace. The Gen Y worker’s love of technology, social media, remote working and willingness to prioritize work over salary (as long as the work is fulfilling) makes him or her an ideal candidate for the virtual work environment. However, if a project manager’s mindset still dwells in past managerial styles and expectation, it is possible that such talented people could slip right through the company’s fingers (and perhaps, land right into the hands of another, more flexible organization).

To understand and adapt to the new workforce, the most important aspect is to be open. Try to understand the worker as a person—as an individual. Perhaps the Gen Y team member wants to take an extended amount of time off, to travel the world, do charity work, or spend time with his or her aging parents. A project manager willing to adapt to such requests will not only augment trust, but also enrich the work experience for the employee, to make it exactly that…an experience, and not just “work”. In return, the Gen Y worker may start to adapt to certain traditional managerial styles out of mutual respect. At the end of the day, tasks are completed and both sides of the team are happy.

So as Bob Dylan would say (a name familiar across all generations!), “Times they are a Changing”…and perhaps our outlooks in the workplace should as well!

Don’t forget to add your comments below.

Claire Sookman is the driving force behind Virtual Team Builders, Claire brings to the table over a decade’s worth of corporate and public sector training experience, working with over 4,500 managers in the past three years. Specializing in virtual team building and communication strategies, Virtual Team Builders provides training that enables global teams to work more efficiently.

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