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Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. - George Orwell, In Front of Your Nose, 1946-1950

Today's organizations are dealing with an unprecedented "5G" workforce. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and smatterings of older Traditionalists and younger Gen Zs, contribute to the most diverse labor force in history. Forbes' Jenna Goudreau says the wide mix - and seemingly incompatible values of the generations - "can be a Petri dish for problems." This viewpoint makes managing conflict between generations seem like an arduous (if not impossible) task. But is it?

Slacking, Entitled, Radical Long-Hairs

As the song goes, "Every generation blames the one before" - and really dislikes the one after! Baby Boomers are greedy workaholics who ruined the planet; Gen Xers are depressed, cynical slackers; Gen Y was born not with a silver spoon in its mouth but a golden trophy.

Generational stereotypes abound, and if we let them, they can get in the way of productivity and performance. Professional development expert Dana Brownlee says, "I'm seeing a lot of generational conflict around differences in communication style and approach to working. It becomes a barrier that gets in the way of trust."

Headlines about "managing Millennials," "dealing with intergenerational conflict" and the like dominate the conversation. If you were to believe the media, you'd have little hope for a mixed-generation workplace. But here's the thing: we're not that different.

Generational Myths

IBM conducted a large-scale study - "Myths, Exaggerations, and Uncomfortable Truths" -- and found that, earth-shatteringly, mind-bendingly, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials share a lot of the same goals. The reality is that we stay at jobs for the same reasons (to make an impact, to help solve social and/or environmental problems, and to work with a diverse group of people) and we leave for the same reasons (more money, more creative/fulfilling workplace). We all want security; we all want fulfillment; we all want a decent paycheck.

Fast Company senior editor Jason Fiefer (who says he's a bit too old to be a Millennial) masterfully debunks the most common Gen Y workplace myths in a short video that accompanies an article called, "The Super Secret Trick to Connecting with Millennials." Not to ruin the suspense, but the trick is treating them like "normal" people. Just as they should treat Boomers or Gen Xers.

Concluding, Fiefer says:

There is a cottage industry of people selling books and websites on how to understand millennials, and they make money when you think millennials are hard to understand. But the more you treat millennials as some foreign species, the harder it will actually be to form a relationship with them. These are nice, normal people... And if you had to pay a consultant lots of money to understand that, you might as well have taken that money and hired another millennial. So people who sensationalize generational discord in the workplace have an agenda? Good to know.

Where the Real Conflict Is

So much of multi-generational conflict has to do with a lack of understanding - which is perpetuated by this "cottage industry" Fiefer speaks of. Everyone thinks they're right: Gen Ys want to wear jeans to the office; Baby Boomers think it should be suit and tie, or at least a good button-up. You'd think this was the biggest issue facing us. Jeans. Not the economy. Not technology. Not the rapid pace of change and the need to adapt and to collaborate. Denim.

The reality is that we're heavily influenced by the times; the Great Generation was influenced by World War II. The Boomers were impacted by Vietnam. Xers were the first latchkey kids. Millennials are dealing with the aftermath of the "Great Recession" and their parents' struggle. This shaped them.

Too often, we don't take the time to realize that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, and behaviors, are largely informed by the era in which we grew up. Generational conflict arises, just like any other conflict, from a lack of understanding. It rears its head when we don't listen or tolerate different viewpoints, perspectives, or experiences - each of which is completely valid. The problem isn't when people want to wear jeans to work or suits, or when one person wants to IM and another wants to use the phone. The problem is when we don't understand and flex. Generational conflict isn't caused by people of different ages; it's caused by stereotypes about people of different ages. It can be resolved when we treat individuals like "nice, normal people" instead of labels.

Managing conflict between generations is much like managing conflict between contemporaries. It's the "super secret trick" of treating people like people. Not like demographics, and not like stick figures. If you want a generationally harmonious workplace, work on creating understanding to close the gaps, not on emphasizing differences that widen them.

Contributed by John Curtis, Attorney and Conflict Coach


Larry Hart

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