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Age diversity in the Workplace

Workplace Generational Differences: Myth Versus Reality

Age diversity in the Workplace

You hear Baby Boomer managers grumble in their microbrews about the twenty- and thirtysome-things (Baby Busters) and their independent attitudes in the workplace. It's true; younger employees know there's a shortage of skilled workers and they're not about to be exploited (work long hours, be loyal as a dog) as the Boomers were. But do the indictments against all Busters regarding laid-back work habits, lack of motivation, and absence of commitment withstand close scrutiny? Here are some realities that contradict popular myths.

Hard work is not age-specific. Every Boomer isn't a workaholic, including many who claim they are. Younger workers will work intensely and enthusiastically if they're if they're emotionally engaged in the job. (If they strike out on their own, they will work non-stop and recruit all family members into the business.) What's off- putting for older managers is that not only do younger workers demand high content in their work, it must make a difference to the organization -- and a visible one, immediately. They have no idea what "paying your dues" means. Being told to pipe down when they offer ideas and to wait until they've learned more about the organizational culture sends them jogging for the nearest exit.

Corporate hazing (making life difficult for new workers to see if they can take it) gets the same response. If a job lacks content or the break-in period goes on and on before real challenges emerge, Busters are gone and quick to say why. They are more demanding of management, unapologetically so, than the Boomers ever dreamed of being, or can tolerate now.

Boomers have changed, too, and some appear to be influenced by the Busters. Between 1990 and 1995 an idea grabbed the collective worker con-sciousness that since job security didn't exist, sticking out an unhappy situation made no sense. Unless strapped financially, Boomers will job hunt surreptitiously and leave without explanation.

Lifestyle choices frequently cross generational lines. Lifestyle choices that have been embraced across the age spectrum are increased sports participation (not just watching), more family time, and emphasis on leisure for its own sake. We're told Boomers haven't saved enough to retire early but many of them are doing just that -- or planning to. They've watched Busters dictate the terms of their lifestyles without negative influences on job or social position.

Job dissatisfaction is universal. Falling out of love with a job isn't age-related. What is, is the length of time it takes for people to realize a job no longer fits. A Buster will decide in a week that a job has no future; a Boomer used to suffer for years before facing this truth and acting on it.

Priorities can shift at any age. Even the most dedicated Boomer may rethink his frenzied schedule and slack off when his wife returns to the workplace with renewed ambition and zest. Two incomes help shift priorities. This again reflects the impact of the under-35 crowd -- a "trickle up" effect. Many of our clients of all ages want jobs with fewer hours even if it means less money and less responsibility.

Expectations rather than age define workplace attitudes. It's true that real generational differences cluster around expectations of the role that work plays in life. Younger workers are less interested in careers per se and career planning; they are and more interested in working at an interesting series of short-term jobs. Many Boomers still yearn for long-term employment even if they have to give up fun and money to achieve it.

Managers faced with motivating an age-diverse work group face enormous challenges. There is no universal motivation. More important, the age composition of the workplace isn't stable. In the theoretical workplace models, there is a
curve of age distribution or even a skewing toward youth. Younger workers are cheaper to employ so when an older worker leaves the model says replace him/her with replace him/her with someone younger and probably less experienced.

That model may not hold up because some managers are actively recruiting older workers -- clones of themselves. They hope Boomers will prove more stable and provide role models for the young. That may not be the case. Boomers may begin to question their commitment when they realize young co-workers think devotion and loyalty are not admirable -- even phony. The reality of today's managers' dilemma is not differences in ages but the shifting perceptions in all age groups about the role of work in their lives. Integrating Boomers, Busters, and now Gen-X workers, is only one people problem managers face. Think about this: Within each of those groups are workers from different ethnic or cultural background. The WASP benchmarks don't fit all. To quote Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd: "Nothing works quite the way we were taught."


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