In the last several years, we’ve seen unprecedented change in the workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 52% of all jobs require some level of technological skill, and that number is expected to jump to 77% in the next decade. Older workers are staying in the workplace longer – some by choice, others by necessity. Younger workers are entering the workplace with advanced technological skills and a unique approach to work.

This is a new environment for employers. They have to manage the performance and the expectations of three (and in some cases four) generations at the same time, while also managing the fast pace of technological change.  In order to attract and retain skilled talent that will drive the organization forward, companies must understand the unique characteristics of each generation, and also how those characteristics can lead to conflict in the workplace that can potentially stymie growth and innovation.

Common Sources of Conflict Among the Generations

Communication and performance management are typically the biggest challenges facing leaders in a multigenerational environment.  Each generation has its own way of thinking when it comes to the nature of work. For example:

  • Baby Boomers don’t need much hand-holding. They are told to do something, and they go do it. They typically do not ask questions during the intermediate steps of a project. They believe that work should happen at work, during business hours.
  • Generation X – They were the first generation to come from two-income households. They often took care of themselves, and didn’t get much attention. They are used to working independently, and dislike micromanagement. They value work-life balance.
  • Generation Y – Millennials want frequent feedback, fast feedback, and they ask a lot of questions throughout the course of the project to ensure they are performing to expectations. They are very reliant on technology and believe that work can happen anywhere, whether it’s at the office, at home, or standing in line at the grocery store.

The frequent communication and question asking of younger workers can cause frustration among older workers. Millennials simply want to be recognized for their performance, but Boomers may think, “That’s your job, just go do it!”  The need for feedback comes from parents and teachers who “hovered” over their children.  Millennials were the first generation to grow up under the “every player gets a trophy” concept. They can have trouble adjusting to a work environment where they are not constantly praised.

This creates a difficult balancing act for leadership. They can become frustrated with younger workers, and the conflict with older workers can become distracting. But change is inevitable. No matter how much older workers may want to retain formality in the workplace, the tide is shifting. In order for organizations to attract and retain young talent, they must be prepared to embrace these changes and evolve along with their workforce.