Generation gap goes to work

February 10, 2005, vol. 32, no. 3
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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What if your new boss was young enough to be your kid?

That's the premise of In Good Company, a light-hearted new movie that shines a spotlight on an increasingly relevant issue in the North American workforce: the ability of markedly different generations to work productively alongside each other.

Organizations have flattened their reporting structures over the last two decades, and skill has replaced tenure as a condition of promotion. There is no longer the steady climb up the ranks that once kept respective generations working with their age peers. Today you're just as likely to find a department where the secretary is 59, the boss is 29, and the newest hire is a 39-year-old mom returning to work in a job-share arrangement.

On April 20, SFU's human resources department will offer a half-day workshop, Engaging the Generations, as part of its on-going series of professional development sessions aimed at managers and supervisors. The course, led by career consultant and recent SFU liberal studies graduate Kathi Irvine, aims to help managers "create a work climate that motivates, satisfies and includes the talents of each team member, no matter what generation they're from."

Irvine says it was only a few years ago that organizations started to feel the impact of generational differences as the independent-minded Gen-Xers poured into the workplace and trendsetting baby boomers began their retirement exodus, taking their accumulated corporate wisdom with them.

Bracketing them at either end of the age spectrum are the so-called silent generation - the solemn and responsible progeny of Depression-era parents - and the millenials - the well-educated, multi-tasking offspring of doting baby boomers.

"Quite often managers don't think about the fact that they may have as many as four different generations working on their team, and that each generation has its own specific values and motivators," says Irvine. "If you overlook those differences for too long, you can end up with huge morale and productivity issues."

Irvine cites the example of a manager having to introduce a multi-generation team to a new technology process. "While the silents have accepted most of the day-to-day technological change that has made their lives simpler over the years, they can be resistant to organizational change. With them, you want to show appreciation for all their previous work, and show evidence that the decision to make the change was well thought out by the organizational leaders.

"The boomers are used to taking on the world, and like to be in the spotlight. You'd want to let them know they somehow contributed to the change: ‘Based on your feedback . . .'

"Gen-Xers, the original latchkey children, grew up spending a lot of time alone. They like to be in control of their time, and would likely embrace the change if, for example, they were offered flexibility in the training schedule.

"The millenials? Tell them honestly why the change needs to be made, and then get them working on a team. This generation is used to knowing what's going on - they grew up being included in important family conversations - and they get along well with their parents and grandparents. They respond positively to active mentoring."

To learn more about this or other human resources programs for supervisors and managers, visit or call learning and development coordinator Linda Goodall at 604-291-4766.

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