A matter of styles

THE MIDDLE AGES

In today's workplace, baby boomer tenacity doesn't always mesh with Gen Xers' laid-back approach

November 12, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN REPORTER

AS MANY OLDER WORKERS DELAY retirement, employers are scrambling to reconcile the work styles and values of the people who still use Cross pens and those who demand Blackberrys.

Many workplaces now routinely host as many as four generations of employees. There are the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, and the Gen Xers, born from 1965 to 1980. To either end are the traditionalists, born in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the millennials, born from 1981 to 2000.

One of the biggest challenges is getting everyone on the same page, er, screen. These days, the greatest generational divider is the "T" word.

"The youngest generation is the most technologically astute. The millennials often have zilch patience with anything that can't be done quicker, faster, quicker," says industrial psychologist Wendy Kaufman. "So you have a workplace now that blends the generation that's never known life without technology with the generation that's still learning it."

It's a situation that can lead to plenty of friction, she says. Imagine, for instance, the reaction to a company bulletin announcing another updated overhaul of its computerized work system.

"Some will be saying 'It's such a big pain.' And the others will be 'This is so exciting, I can't wait!' Those different mindsets can cause very big problems," she says. "You've got one group who wants things to constantly be changing and another group that says, 'You know what? I'm done!'

"Some younger people will have that inherent belief that this [technology] change is always good for us. They have a very trusting notion that technology will make it better. But the older generation will tend to say, 'There is less human contact; where's the face-to-face?' They miss that personal connection."

Kaufman, 44, owns Balancing Life's Issues Inc., a nationwide corporate training company based in Westchester County, N.Y., that provides seminars and workshops on work-life topics. For daily reminders of the difficulties of bridging workers' experience gaps, the baby boomer says she need go no further than her own home.

"There's a whole generation now that doesn't understand it when someone talks about life before cell phones and e-mail," she says. "My 15-year-old daughter doesn't understand what a big deal it used to be for me and my friends to get together to watch The Wizard of Oz on TV. She simply can't imagine that we would have to wait a whole year for it to be on!"

Does this sound familiar?

If you're a boomer, you've already made a lot of adjustments at work and may have bridged many of the intergenerational gaps. But some remain. Why, you may wonder, do these younger workers seem to change jobs so frequently? Why do so many of them leave work before you do?

Expectations

Baltimorean Kay Campbell, 50, wonders why some young workers have to be told how to dress appropriately, even for job interviews.

Campbell has a typical Boomer background. She earned a degree in business administration from Loyola College, spent 12 years working in logistics for AAI Corporation, and then was downsized in 1990.

Since then, she has held various office management jobs, including being the front office administrator with Express Personnel Services Inc. services in Timonium. A national company with franchises, Express Personnel places temporary and permanent workers in a variety of office and industrial positions. Its staff helps job seekers improve their skills as well as their knowledge about workplace expectations.

"Many younger people don't know how to dress. No matter what the interview, they'll show up in blue jeans and sneakers," Campbell says. "Even for a sales job."

Any other major differences?

"Communication," she says. "Some younger people are not able to get their message across because they don't speak good English."

Of course, none of this applies to Campbell's colleague, 24-year-old Amanda Kates, who has also noticed generational trends in the people she interviews.

"My age group is a lot more computer-literate -- that's the biggest difference," she says. "A lot of older people have higher standards for their work quality and also have more expectations for it. At the same time, they can be critical of the younger generation. Sometimes we're critiqued because we have a different way of dressing and speaking."

Cinnie Brown, 63, is the operations manager for the franchise. She considers Millennials like Kates to be "wonderful multi-taskers."

"They've grown up doing their homework assignments while they have their iPods hooked in and instant messaging at the same time. As a result, they have a self-confidence that many people in my generation didn't have until they had a lot of work experience," she says.

Confidence levels

They also don't take work matters as personally.

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