Sunday, March 08, 2009

Book Review: When Generations Collide

This book is worth reading as an introduction to the problems of generational conflicts within the workplace. Written in 2002, it unfortunately misses some of the more interesting developments of the 2000s, such as the conversations that have been going on within NASA. The full title of this book is When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work. It was written by Lynne C. Lancaster (a Boomer) and David Stillman (a Gen-Xer), who have formed a consulting business called BridgeWorks, which helps businesses cope with multiple generations in the workplace. The book and the company cover the typical Human Resources issues that can come up, including personality clashes, hiring, retention, departures, training, and benefits.

Aside from being informative (but very generalized...we're talking about groups of people, after all, not individuals), When Generations Collide is also entertaining, as it provides real-world examples from Lynne and David's work interactions (they couldn't stand each other when they first met). The book also provides examples from the workplace that really help the reader understand how differences in expectations up and down the generations can create tension or misunderstandings.

It might or might not surprise the reader to learn that the primary differences between the generations (Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists--a combination of the Silent Generation and Greatest Generation) concern questions of values. And here, I think, is where the book shines, because it demonstrates how those values express themselves across a variety of work situations, from communication style to giving feedback to defining "retirement." The authors also make the point that these clashes directly affect both turnover and the bottom line. With multiple generations likely to fill the workplace for years to come (the Boomers aren't going away silently...heck, my Silent Generation parents are all still working), this problem isn't going away any time soon.

One of my readers, Rolando, has written a couple of thoughtful emails in response to my postings, one of them on the generational issue. I believe When Generations Collide answers one of his questions:
I really would appreciate any advice you have on "what management wants to hear?" OR "How does management like to hear things?"

It is not so much the first question where the book can help as the second question. The point is not to tell you what to think or even how, but more about how you express yourself, whatever generation you are. Again, understanding that these are generalities (for instance, I behave and think a lot more like a Traditionalist or Boomer in some things, very much like the Xer in others), here are the guiding emphases for the four primary working generations:
  • Traditionalists (born 1900-1945): "Build a legacy." The emphasis for this group is on long-term loyalty to the organization, doing a good job, and moving up the traditional ladder. Growing up in a mostly male or white-male-dominated military-style culture, they tend to just say, "Yes, sir," and go do the job, whatever it is, with a minimum of complaint, fuss, or talk.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1965): "Build a stellar career." With such a large generation competing for work, the Boomers are very competitive, with their elders and peers. Because of their sheer number of peers, emphasis on idealism (they were taught that they could do anything), and their willingness to challenge authority, the Boomers were able to change some aspects of the stoic Traditionalists's organizations. They tend to be very protocol-oriented and status-conscious since they had to "play the game" and compete to get ahead.
  • Generation X (born 1966-1980): "Build a portable career." Growing up in a period when many institutions were under assault, changing, or falling apart (example: the divorce rate tripled during this period, with my own family being one of the casualties), Xers do not have a great deal of faith in institutions as a whole. As a result, Xers tend to build up a set of transferrable skills so that they can be "safe," regardless of where they end up. In the workplace, they are often "looking out for number one," but are willing to join teams if said teams offer a minimum of time wasting. They are almost natural-born consultants and are uncomfortable in positions of leadership.
  • Generation Y/Millennials (born 1980-2000): "Build parallel careers." For the most part, this generation has grown up in a period of plenty under the tutelage of affluent Baby Boomer parents. This affluence and Boomer influence means that Millennials have been ingrained with the notion of a multi-faceted, "well-rounded" resume. Over-programmed at times, Millennials grew up with not just academics, but also sports, group memberships, dance, and travel experiences. Raised in more democratic households, Millennials often had a voice in family decisions, so they are used to giving feedback to adults, receiving feedback, and being listened to. In the workplace, this translates into a very short or nonexistent period of wanting to give input into the running of businesses ("dues paying" grates on them), but they also tend to be more loyal than Gen-Xers if they are provided with work that offers many different types of tasks and that is meaningful to them.

If you found yourself nodding in agreement to any or all of these, you have some idea of what sorts of challenges are ahead for America's working generations. Again, I recommend this book as an introduction to the generational puzzle and as a starting point for thinking about communication styles. There are interesting times ahead, and education needs to happen at all levels for improvements to be made.

No comments: