by Elizabeth A. Campbell

Partner and Chief Diversity Officer
Andrews Kurth LLP

This is not your grandmother’s workplace anymore. The dynamics of four different generations in the U.S. workplace together may create tension, but proactively harnessed, this diversity may yield greater operational performance.

Differences and Tension

Perhaps for the first time in U.S. history, we have four generations working together, in part because of the recent downtown in the economy and the negative effect that market volatility has had on retirement savings. Thus, we have “steady Eddie” Traditionalists (born 1945 or prior) working side-by-side with “workaholic” Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), managing—or being managed by—“individualistic” Gen Xers (born 1965-1981), who are sharing the workplace with “multi-tasking” Gen Yers or Millennials (born 1982-2000.)

“Workplace competition can be challenging enough without the added diversity elements of generational composition.”

Workplace competition can be challenging enough without the added diversity elements of generational composition. The characteristics generally associated with a certain generation, in fact, may be stereotypes; not everyone within each generation will have all of the same characteristics. However, because the similarities associated with a generation are driven by external factors—what was happening in the U.S. when one was born—it is more likely that people of the same generation will share some similar perspectives. While I have not examined this dynamic from an international perspective, I suspect that the same theory holds true.

Move Over and Make Room for Grandparents

The people I know who are Traditionalists are people who save everything. “Waste not, want not” is their motto. Why? They were born or grew up during the time of the Great Depression. For them, they are loyal to an organization, view seniority and titles with utmost respect, and look at their careers as a fortunate opportunity. They may be frustrated by newer entrants to the workforce who act as if they are “entitled.”

Different Generations have Different Work Styles

At the other end of the generational spectrum, we see our Gen Yers who were often raised by generous, grateful Baby Boomer parents who did not want their children to have to work as hard as they did. Some view Gen Yers as having no work ethic; being rewarded for participation rather than results is the norm. (How many soccer trophies are in your closet?) I say that Gen Yers have a “different” work ethic. For example, Gen Yers are loyal—but to their colleagues; they respect authority figures—but only if those in power can demonstrate competence; and they are committed to their careers—but see work as an opportunity to add value and contribute.

Technology to the Rescue

When we focus on the strengths of each generation and ways to balance skills, we create opportunities to enhance operational performance. Technology is a good example. While Traditionalists and many Baby Boomers are slow to adapt to rapidly changing technology, Gen Yers thrive on it. Want to get something done quickly and efficiently? Give it to a multi-tasking, technologysavvy Gen Yer and problem solved.

Rather than bristle at generational differences, I embrace them, knowing that I can discover solutions to problems by giving each generation a chance to realize its fullest potential.

This article has been sponsored by:
Society for Human Resource Management

Elizabeth A. Campbell

Elizabeth A. Campbell

Partner and Chief Diversity Officer
Andrews Kurth LLP

Elizabeth A. Campbell is an attorney and diversity practitioner. As Partner and Chief Diversity Officer for Andrews Kurth, she develops and implements the diversity and inclusion components of the firm’s strategic plan. She collaborates with the firm’s Labor and Employment attorneys and is a frequent speaker, training facilitator and author.