From the Executive Director: Filling the generation gaps

From the Executive Director: Filling the generation gapsMarsha Herman-Betzen2003-09-0155Boardroomfalse

For those of us in education, Labor Day has become a highly visual symbol that our lives are about to experience a significant change. While we enjoyed the time away from the office by relaxing with friends and family around the outdoor grill, this last three-day celebrative weekend of summer provided some sobering realities. It has always been the quiet before the storm of activity that a new academic year brings.

To get ready for that influx of new students, we typically begin by trying to understand the incoming class of freshmen students by studying their world as they know it. This preparation is not new. In 1980 we read Arthur Levine's book "When Dreams and Heroes Died," which portrayed a generation of college students without heroes who turned away from activism and community and turned inward toward individualism. In 1998 Levine and Jeanette Cureton wrote "When Hope and Fear Collide," which chronicled a shift in the attitudes of a new generation of college students motivated by a conflicting sense of hope and fear as they looked to make a difference in the world. In addition, each September The Chronicle of Higher Education (2002) publishes the "Beloit College Annual Guide for Understanding a New Group of Freshmen." Last year's list included insightful tidbits of wisdom on the freshman class born in 1984 (p. 6). Because this was last year's list (the 2003 list was not yet available at press time), you can be sure some of these statements have now changed.

•   A Southerner has always been president of the    United States.

•   South Africa's official policy of apartheid has not existed during their lifetime.

•   Cars have always had air bags, CD players, and eye-level rear brake lights.

•   Prom dresses have always come in basic black.

•   Cyberspace has always existed.

•   George Foreman has always been a barbecue grill salesman.

•   The GM Saturn has always been on the road.

•   Ozzy's lifestyle has nothing to do with the Nelson family.

•   Women have always had tattoos.

•   Sylvan Learning Centers have always been an after-school option.

•   We have always been able to choose our long-distance carriers.

•   The "evil empire" has moved from Moscow to a setting in some distant galaxy.

•   Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw have always anchored the evening news.

•   The Fab Four are not the Beatles, but the four women of "Sex in the City."

•   Electronic filing of federal income taxes has always been an option.

What we have not studied with as much diligence or enthusiasm is the demographics of our evolving work force and how that is changing the way we do business. Given the current news on the health of our work force, we should have been paying far more attention to these differences long ago. The dismal economy has us feeling a bit irritable if not downright cantankerous as we hear the almost daily announcements of layoffs and reports of economic gloominess. According to the United States Department of Labor Statistics (2003), the number of unemployed persons increased by 360,000 in June 2003 to 9.4 million, and the unemployment rate has risen to a whopping 6.4 percent from a 30-year low of 3.9 percent in July of 2001.

All of us have been directly or indirectly affected by these statistics. There are few campuses who have not felt the pressure of this economy as state funding continues to decrease because of huge shortfalls. It is hard to focus on the demographics and differences of our staff and how to design systems with these differences in mind when we are spending every waking moment trying to balance the day-to-day bottom line.

Author, speaker, and management consultant Marilyn Moats Kennedy (2002), of Career Strategies said:

Twenty years ago we knew the youthquake would end and Boomers would age despite their best efforts to avoid it. What we didn't anticipate was how profoundly this would affect the workforce. U.S. labor is now a reverse pyramid poised on an ever-narrowing point. Only 18 percent of the U.S. population is younger than 18. Race, gender, and ethnic diversity in the workplace have been superseded by a bigger issue: age diversity. There are four age cohorts in the workplace now and a fifth coming on by the year 2006. These five groups share some traditional work values but differ on the role of managers, employer/employee loyalty, telecommuting, technical competence and what constitutes a good day's work. (p. 1)

According to Kennedy, typical work place characteristics of Pre-Boomer employees (born 1934–45) are that they have a traditional work ethic, are loyal to their employer, value working well with others, believe in the mission, are independent but conventional, and want to win. Boomers (born 1946–59) value money as well as work ethic, expect to lead, care deeply what others think, are loyal to their employer, tend to be technically challenged, want others to work with them, believe in the chain of command, and take on an "I win, you lose" mentality. Cuspers (born 1960–68) lead and follow, are also technically challenged, care about the mission, value money and principle, and want to win. The Busters (born 1969–78) value lifestyle over work, have no need to lead, don't care what others think, prefer to work alone, are technically savvy, and believe in an "I win, you win" philosophy. Finally, Nesters (born 1979–84) also believe in lifestyle first, lead if necessary, care little what others think, like small groups, are technically state of the art, must believe in the mission, and agree with Busters about an "I win, you win" philosophy.

Nowhere are these descriptions truer than in our small office of 12, which has a staff member from all but one decade. While we don't have any Pre-Boomer managers, the Boomer managers and their younger subordinates are often known to experience communication "fly-bys." According to the 2000 Collins English Dictionary, a "fly-by" literally means a flight past a particular position or target; yet in the vernacular the term is used more often to depict a major communication breakdown. An example of a "fly-by" occurred recently when I asked one of my department heads to tell one of his direct reports that I wanted her to attend a seminar. The department head proceeded to send the staff member an e-mail with an attachment of the seminar program and asked the employee if she had any interest in attending the program. The employee thought it looked interesting but got busy and never followed through with making the arrangements to attend the seminar. The above scenario vividly portrays a major "fly-by" by three generations of employees who viewed what they said and what they heard in three very different ways. It is important to note that what took place is not about good or bad or right or wrong, but rather is about understanding how different generations transmit and receive information.

If you apply Kennedy's generational descriptors to the above scenario you can see why the "fly-by" transpired. Being a Boomer, I value work first and believe in the chain of command, so I saw my request as a directive. My Cusper department head has mixed feelings when it comes to balancing the chain of command with honoring the employee's individual needs, and he took the directive and softened it by presenting the request as an option. The Buster employee chose not to act on what she perceived was an option, completing the communication cycle of the breakdown.

What had occurred was splintered cross-generational communication. What one person heard was not what the other person meant. Regardless of our age and our position in the organization, we need to understand some of the real and perceived differences in communication styles that must be overcome if people are to work comfortably together.

Kennedy (2002) says:

Communication with younger workers often stymies 40- and 50-something Boomer managers. They become frustrated when they try to communicate what they consider ordinary ideas to 20- and 30-somethings. For example, when a Boomer says to a Boomer, 'This needs to be done,' both understand that this is an order, but nicely put. Likewise when a Boomer says to a Boomer, 'Would you mind?' the anticipated answer is, 'No, of course not.' However, when a Boomer says to a Buster, 'This needs to be done,' the Buster hears an observation, not an order. Boomers are astounded when they ask a Buster, 'Would you mind?' and they state quite frankly the reasons why they would mind! (pp. 3–4)

One of the biggest differences between the generations is computer competence. According to Kennedy (2002), "Fifty-five percent of Pre-Boomers are computer competent while only 65 percent of Boomers are. Many cross-generational spats arise from the fact that Busters (a.k.a. Gen Xers), 90 percent of whom are computer competent, are impatient with people less technically savvy than themselves" (p. 2). This is certainly true with the ACUI Central office staff. In fact I can think of no greater bone of contention.

While typing my July Bulletin column earlier this summer, my computer suddenly started typing in all capital letters. Remembering the last time this happened, I pressed what I thought was the Caps Lock button to no avail as capital letters continued to appear on my screen. I punched around on the keyboard, frantically trying to figure out which button I had pressed to make all my letters stand at attention. Discouraged, I went down the hall to one of my young staff member's office for help. "You have to come quick," I said. "My computer is typing in all capital letters, and I don't know how to make it stop!" He said to me, "Did you try Caps Lock?" Well, I'm not an idiot I told him, "Yes, of course, that was the first thing I tried!" He followed me down the hallway to my computer, and as we walked into my office he immediately looked at the keyboard, pressed the Caps Lock key and all was well. Apparently, I had been pressing the Shift key instead of the Caps Lock key. This need for help with my computer is not an isolated event. Now, whenever I have any question about the misfiring of my computer, someone on my staff smiles smugly and says, "pilot error" and then invariably asks, "Did you try the Caps Lock button?"

I have rationalized the above scenario by knowing that I did not get my first computer until 1993 at the ripe old age of 44. Ten years later I am proud of the fact I can navigate three open windows on my computer simultaneously. For many of my staff, their computer is a tool they have used since first grade and is used in the same way I used a pencil. Herein lies the generational "fly-by" that must be accommodated by all.

Kennedy's message is an important one, as we continually search for ways to effectively communicate across generations so all age groups are encouraged. If you found yourself shaking your head in agreement or smiling because you could relate to the examples I have shared, you will not want to miss hearing Kennedy in person as she keynotes our annual conference Feb. 27 to March 1, 2004, in Washington, D.C. The power between generational groups will continue to shift as Boomers begin to retire and Nesters enter the work place. We must continue to find ways to understand, complement, and mentor each other, so our diverse organizations will be more successful.

Chronicle of Higher Education. (2002, August 28). "Beloit College releases its annual guide for understanding a new group of freshmen." Washington, DC: Author.

Kennedy, M.M. (2002). Managing change: Understanding the demographics of the evolving workforce. Handout presented at the California Auxiliary Directors Conference, January 18, 2003, Sonoma, CA.

Levine, A., & Cureton, J.S. (1998). When hope and fear collide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Levine, A. (1980). When dreams and heroes died: A portrait of today's college student. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

U.S. Department of Labor. (2003, July 19). Latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved July 27, 2003, from

Updated Nov. 9, 2012