XYZ Generation Wars

By Sandy Galland


Is there a war going on in your office?

Does your workplace culture succumb to the insidious cycle of ageist generalisations which compartmentalise your colleagues, based on nothing more than when they were born?

In today’s workplaces, the war between generations seem to be getting more attention than any other time in history. Relations among the generations seem to be at a low point: Gen Y thinks Gen X are a bunch of whiners. Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled, and everyone thinks the

Baby Boomers are self-absorbed workaholics.

This generational conflict in the workplace is here to stay and will probably become even more intense in the future, so how do businesses battle biases and provide the optimum environment for everyone?

All our workforces are now made up of the three most talked about generations, yet stereotypes and misunderstandings about each generation’s desires and motivations persist. As the workforce ages we need to be able to get the most out of all people, regardless of their age.

As the Gen Xs and Gen Ys advance through organisations they are becoming managers of Boomers. This needs to be carefully managed, and there needs to be increased understanding and delivery on the needs of the Gen Xs and Gen Ys.

On the flip side the Xs and Ys need to understand and be able to make the most of the Boomers.

It is important to remember generalisations about the generations are just that. Age defines a demographic, not a person. We are talking about individuals here, each with his or her own unique set of work and life experiences, character traits and ethics.

Generational differences

One expert in the field and a facilitator of many training courses on the subject, Jacqueline Holmes, communications director at Rapport, says there have always been differences in the workplace. “All people contribute different things and everyone needs to be treated as an individual. Workplaces have always been about adapting to each other and this (generational difference) is just another layer to add to this.”

Jennie Vickers of Zeopard facilitates an Auckland University short course on the subject of generational difference within business. While it is a very real situation, she believes the recession has impacted on some of the behaviours.

Before the recession there was frustration about the turnover of under 25s. “They simply weren’t staying in a job long. They were being trained up then they were gone.” Now, with jobs not so easy to come by, Vickers believes many Gen Ys are sitting tight and filling in their days while they’re dreaming of better times. Then they’ll be back to constant migration, looking for bigger and more personally satisfying challenges.

The traditional model of companies taking on graduates and investing a lot of time and money into them is starting to creak, Vickers believes. “I know of a bank which has withdrawn its graduate training programme because the costs do not translate into long term benefits for them.”

It is well known Gen Ys will jump from job to job, their “stick-ability” levels are low, but both Vickers and Holmes ask why the Baby Boomers are surprised. Did they not raise this generation?

Many Boomers sit in their offices complaining about this section of the workforce but it is a product of their own doing. “It’s so ironic. The parents of this generation were so desperate to provide everything for their children and gave them the best opportunities and a chance to give everything a go. What they have done is created monsters. They tried so many activities as kids but never learned enough about sheer effort and sticking with things,” Vickers adds.

It is a generation which has received a lot of media time and not always for the right reasons. However, these are our leaders of the future and with of one million of them in New Zealand from 16 to 31 years old, they are becoming a larger part of the workforce each year.

In New Zealand approximately 10 percent of Gen Ys own their own businesses. At the other end of the scale, just over 1.2 million people are aged 50 and over and half of the country’s population will be 45 and older by 2051, according to Statistics New Zealand.

While that’s a fair way off, people aged 45 and over control 71 per cent of New Zealand’s wealth, and those 50 years and over control 65 per cent of disposable income, according to research by SeniorAgency.

Contributing to the situation are the shifts in education systems across the world in the last 50 years. This has impacted substantially on the way young brains have been nurtured and developed. While generational differences are usually rationalised around behaviour, the underlying cause is often differential brain development.

To diminish these generation wars everyone needs to understand all the generations beyond the stereotypes. Then you need to figure out how to effectively communicate with each of them, trying to grasp the fascinating insights into how our brains develop and are moulded by the influences of the era in which we grew up. Good luck!

And the future is…

We haven’t even touched on Gen Z. These guys were born after 1994 and are generally thought to be “instant minded” as they are born in the world of digital technology and gadgets. And they will soon be entering the workforce!

The way forward

The 2008 annual American World of Work survey found the four generations now in the US workforce — Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers and “matures” (those born 1900 to 1945) — rarely interact with one another. This lack of communication is keeping key business job knowledge held by the boomer generation from filtering down to younger workers.

The isolation among workforce generations is credited to a lack of recognition of the others’ skills

or work ethic. Although boomers have a lot of knowledge and experience to share with Gen Y workers, 51 percent of them and 66 percent of matures reported little or no interaction with their Gen Y colleagues.

Other key findings include:

  • Gen Y has the lowest expectations among the four generations for “soft” workplace benefits of satisfying work, pleasant work environment, liking the people they work with, challenging work and flexible hours
  • Gen Y describes co-workers of their own generation as positive socially but not necessarily competent
  • With strong social skills, Gen X has the most potential to bridge the knowledge gap between Boomers and Gen Y.


Baby boomers

Wary of diversity

Hard working



Play by the rules




Value perks and praise

Difficulty accepting change

Wary of technology



Gen X

Accept diversity




Reject rules

Require honesty/transparency

Thrive on diversity and challenge

Mistrust institutions

Use technology


Value work/life balance


Friend — not family


Gen Y

Celebrate diversity



Rewrite the rules

Irrelevance of institutions

Internet a way of life

Assume technology

Multi-task fast


Friends = family

Author: fatweb

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