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The rise of ‘generational warfare’

Generational clashes could have a negative impact on organizations

By Brian Kreissl

I commented previously about how I believe all of the talk about perceived generational differences in the workplace is a little overblown.

Many people seem to feel justified in stereotyping others based on their generation in ways they wouldn’t dream of with respect to race, nationality or ethnic origin.

An entire industry of consultants, speakers, authors and other experts has sprung up to help employers manage the complexities of dealing with an intergenerational workforce. While I see the value of some of what those experts are saying, I’m also concerned employers may be taking advice about generational characteristics a little too far and forgetting to treat people as individuals.

The environment we grew up in obviously shapes who we are as individuals, and it’s good that people are increasingly aware of the forces that shaped their own generation and others.

For instance, I understand why my own cohort, Generation X, is frequently said to believe very strongly in education and having backup plans while also having a somewhat cynical and distrustful attitude towards organizations.

But because there’s so much talk about supposed generational characteristics in the workforce, people are increasingly aware of those characteristics and are using them to stereotype and insult others.

Because of that I’m starting to see a lot of banter (some friendly, some not so friendly) in online forums and elsewhere among people of different generations. This has also taken hold in many workplaces, with the result some commenters are beginning to refer to it as “generational warfare.”

Criticisms of other generations

For example, it’s quite common for younger people to criticize the baby boomers for “selling out” and becoming part of the establishment after having been involved in anti-war and civil rights protests during the 1960s and 1970s. They criticize boomers for having wanted to change the world but failing to make positive changes in any material way.

Economically, criticisms against boomers centre around the fact so many of them refuse to retire, leading to less upward mobility and fewer opportunities in general for younger people than the boomers enjoyed themselves. Invariably, there are also comments about the older generation’s lack of technological savvy and resistance to change or consider new ways of doing things. Some commenters have even labeled the boomers as “parasites” for taking more from society than they contributed.

And while we’ve all heard the stereotypes, I often read comments about generation Y’s supposed lack of respect, poor communication skills, need for constant praise, lack of work ethic and belief they should be promoted after six months on the job.

As a gen-Xer, it’s interesting to see how things have changed over the past few years. It seems like a short time ago, many of us felt more than a little left out as boomer employers tried to bend over backwards to attract and retain gen-Y employees.

Well-known author and speaker on generational issues Tammy Erickson even referred to this as a “boomer-gen Y love fest.” One of the reasons behind this phenomenon was likely because many Boomers had Gen Y children of their own.

While organizations are still taking measures to hire, motivate and engage millennial talent, there’s a noticeable difference these days. Some of that has to do with the economy, but I also think the “love fest” may have lost some of that loving feeling over the years.

Negative impact on productivity

A recent study completed by KPMG in the United Kingdom found that what they are calling “age warfare” may be having a negative impact on workplace productivity. Nearly one-half of younger respondents felt older colleagues need to retire in order to give younger people a chance. They also believed there is little value in learning from older colleagues and that a significantly older workforce would be drain on productivity.

While I understand the sentiment of many 20-somethings (and even some in their late 30s and 40s) about lack of promotional opportunities, it’s too bad we’re seeing this type of thinking in so many organizations.

We all have something valuable to contribute, and we can all learn from one another, regardless of our generational cohort or level of experience. It’s also important to realize there are more individual differences among people than similarities as members of a group, and that it’s wrong to stereotype people based on their age or generation.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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