The generation gap at work

What's wrong with these kids today? Nothing. You have more in common with younger workers than you think.

By Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine contributing writer

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- As offices go, the editorial suites at Time Inc. are pretty laid back. T-shirts are fine. Shave if you like. Slides, sneakers or heels - your choice. Yet there's a limit to what passes for acceptable appearance, and I was sure a recent bunch of college interns had breached it spectacularly with their nose rings, tattoos and low-rise pants. These were bright, ambitious kids. Why the blatant show of disrespect?

My younger colleagues wondered too. But they were more amused than aghast, and it occurred to me that there is a widening generation gap when it comes to interpreting casual Fridays. And that's not all: Young folks are putting their stamp on the workplace in ways far more reaching than their wardrobe. And we boomers don't necessarily like it.

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Dan Kadlec is co-author of The Power Years, a guide for boomers. E-mail him at boom_years@moneymail.com .

We're all part of a new-age experiment: four generations working side by side yet often speaking a different language. Think that's an exaggeration? Go ahead. Try to decipher this twentysomething text message: WU CMIW that was CLM or maybe CS. (What's up? Correct me if I'm wrong. That was a career-limiting move or maybe career suicide.)

Boomers, the older "silent" generation, and younger ones known as X and Y bring vastly different histories, values and work habits to the job. These gaps have led to stereotypes that hinder our ability to get things done.

Nearly 60 percent of HR managers at large companies say they've observed office conflicts that flow from generational differences, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Tensions typically stem from perceptions of loyalty and respect - as in, we think the kids don't have any. Yet the latest research shows that we may be compatible after all. Debunking some key myths may help you get past the tattoos and belly buttons in your office.

Myth No. 1: Young workers love change

It's commonly thought that young people embrace change as enthusiastically as older workers resist it. Not so. In a study of 3,200 workers, only 12 across the generations said they liked change at the office, reports the Center for Creative Leadership.

"Resistance to change isn't about age, it's about how much you stand to gain or lose," says the Center's Jennifer Deal, author of "Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground." In general, older workers have more to lose. But many younger workers have identical anxieties.

Don't make assumptions based on age, says Deal. Ask your young colleagues how a shift would change their life. If it's for the better, can you blame them for loving it? But it might be as upsetting to them as it is to you - and it could be a bonding moment.

Myth No. 2: Gen X- and Y-ers lack a strong work ethic

Not true. But coming of age under very different circumstances has affected our work styles. Boomers had to scrape and claw for jobs and work long hours to keep them and get ahead because there were so many of us. Competition was keen. Work became central to our identities, and with two-earner households, we did much of our socializing in professional circles.

But Gen X is much smaller and has never known job scarcity. They can demand more or move on. They've seen their parents get downsized, seeming victims of company loyalty, and watched them strain to juggle career and family.

That different history has led to marked differences in how we work. Younger generations are willing to move every two or three years to get the job experience and work-life balance they want. Ask them to come into the office over the weekend and they are apt to resist.

"Their time off is their time off," says Gary Westerman, a former employment consultant. Yet that doesn't mean they won't get the job done. If they must, they'll work from the beach on their laptop. And they're more apt to come in promptly and eschew the water-cooler chats so popular among boomers. They focus, finish and leave. Boomers need to appreciate these style differences. Look at the results, not the process.

Myth No. 3: They disrespect elders

This gets back to the dress issue. When boomers entered the work force, tattoos and body piercings were for bikers and lowlifes. Yet Gen X and Gen Y see these expressions (in tastefully modest doses) as normal, even alluring - not a way to thumb their nose at authority.

The question of respect goes beyond a dress code. Boomers got ahead by doing what they were told and expect younger workers to similarly fall in line. But with their leverage in the workplace, twenty- and thirtysomethings don't have to take what you say on faith. They want to know why they're being asked to perform a task.

This isn't disrespect. They have more options than you did at that age. But if you are clear in what you expect and explain the reasons behind a particular assignment, they'll respond.

Myth No. 4: Younger workers prefer to go it alone

"Boomers like to call a meeting," says Robert Wendover, managing director for the Center for Generational Studies. "X- ers would rather e-mail or text." But while younger workers are more accepting of technology, corresponding via text message and preferring to communicate online instead of in a meeting hardly qualifies as going it alone.

All generations value working with capable colleagues despite age, says Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership. Boomers accustomed to face time may misread young workers' preference for tech time as isolationist. It's anything but - if you know how to use the tools.

So learn them. And then give the kid a chance. Soon you won't even notice the silver stud in her tongue. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.