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Use the right equation to solve Y: It’s time to reset the dialogue on generational differences

May 01, 2014
By Arin Reeves
Arin Reeves serves as president of the research and consulting firm Nextions. Prior to her position at Nextions, she practiced law for several years before transitioning to working on leadership and inclusion in academia and eventually developing her own research and consulting practice.

Talking about generational differences is all the rage in workplaces these days. Much is written and said on Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and how they all relate (or don’t) to one another. I’ve done my own share of researching, writing and speaking on this topic over the past few years, and I’ve watched and listened in frustration as the dialogue on this topic has slowly devolved into a diatribe against Gen Y.

If we want productive workplaces, we need to stop the diatribe and reset the dialogue.

For reference, Boomers were born between 1946–1964, members of Gen X were between 1965–1980 and Gen Y (the Millennials) includes those born from 1981-2000. Gen X is the smallest generation currently in the workplace, so the conversation on generational differences in the workplace is primarily focused on the relationship between Boomers and Gen Y.

In today’s workplaces, various versions of the following refrains are commonplace: “Gen Y is an entitled generation; Gen Y wants everything but they don’t want to work for it; Gen Y is difficult to manage because they don’t listen, and they think they know everything; Gen Y is self-centered; Gen Y is disrespectful.”

While there is no doubt that Boomers really believe what they are saying about Gen Y, the Boomers’ opinions are slowly becoming substitutions, albeit poor ones, for actual facts about Gen Y. And Gen Y is not being given the opportunity to define its generation or defend against the opinions of the Boomers.

First and foremost, it is important to note that what you mostly read and hear about Gen Y is not an objective, or even well rounded, analysis of Gen Y. It is simply what Boomers think of Gen Y. (Boomers may agree with what they read and hear, but that agreement is still just an opinion. Increasing the number of people who agree with an opinion does not make that opinion a fact.)

Every generation has its opinions about the other generations, but the reality is that Boomers have the loudest voices in this particular conversation. They are more likely than Gen Y to be the leaders of mainstream organizations, be the mouthpieces of mainstream media and have the economic power to set social trends. (While marketing efforts continue to be tailored to appeal to 18- to 24-year-olds, the people creating and paying for these efforts are Boomers who are interested in the financial benefits of appealing to this age cohort.)

Because Boomers have strong opinions and are heard more than Gen Y, their opinions on Gen Y are starting to be seen as actual facts about Gen Y.

Second, many of the differences between the Boomers and Gen Y have been labeled by the Boomers as differences in values, work ethic or ambitions. This is a gross misrepresentation of the differences.

Generational differences, more often than not, are differences in communication and expression, not differences in values, work ethic or ambitions. For example, every generation goes through a period where they express and communicate their unique styles, and every generation’s parents think that expression lacks taste and judgment. One generation’s bell-bottom pants and unkempt hair are another generation’s tattoos and body piercings. One generation’s protest march is another generation’s flash mob.

Boomers and Gen Y, underneath their communication differences, have more in common than not. Both generations came into the workplace with a focus on challenging the status quo, redefining success for themselves and utterly confident that they were smarter and faster than anyone else in the workplace. And Gen Y is just as difficult for Boomers to manage as Boomers were for the Traditionalists to manage.

This is not to suggest that generational differences aren’t real or that they don’t need to be managed deliberately and thoughtfully.

However, it is critical to understand that generational differences are not differences in who we are — they are differences in how we articulate and express who we are.

Different generations can have the same values (i.e., challenge the status quo), work ethic (i.e., modernize how, where and when we work) and ambitions (i.e., redefine success), but they can articulate and express these values very differently.

The issue for workplaces is not whether to adjust to these differences. Rather, it’s how to best adjust to these differences so that all generations have the opportunity to thrive and contribute at their full potential.

The diatribe against Gen Y is keeping workplaces mired in unproductive conflict instead of allowing us to create workplaces that work for all generations. If we stop the diatribe and reset the dialogue, we can once again see each other as individuals that express shared values in different ways instead of as different generations that don’t have much in common.

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