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Boomers, GenXers and Millennials: How Are They Different and Does It Matter?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brynne VanHettinga
June 2, 2015

Inter-generational differences in work values have become fashionable among HR management professionals and consultants. The theory is that each generation shares particular life experiences that subsequently affect their values and attitudes. So-called Boomers, defined as persons born between 1946 and 1964, grew up in an era of relative job security; so they value dedication, diligence and organizational loyalty. Generation X (or GenExers), defined as persons born between 1965 and 1980, grew up in an era characterized by globalized production and layoffs; they place higher value on work-life balance and family. Millennials (sometimes referred to as “Generation Y” or “Nexters”), defined as persons born between 1981 and 2001, grew up with technology and are most comfortable with it. They also tend to dislike rigid work schedules and procedures.

Skeptics of the inter-generational differences theory propose that measurable differences in attitude can be reasonably explained as age effects. That is, Boomers are older and hence, occupy positions higher up the organizational hierarchy and are more committed to the organization. They also are more likely to have practical reasons to value loyalty and security, such as home mortgages, children about to enter college and impending retirement concerns.

Conversely, the younger GenExers and Millennials are more likely to believe that changing jobs will provide a faster route to work satisfaction than waiting around for the Boomers to retire and open positions for promotion. Heckman even suggests that the typical “job hopping” and turnover of younger workers is not the wasteful activity it is usually portrayed to be, but rather part of the personal productivity growth continuum that is necessary to find (or create) the best job match.

One researcher describes Boomers as proactive (they live to work), GenXers as reactive (they work to live), and Millenials as impulsive (they live first, then work). Obviously, these characteristics can be attributed as much to one’s station in life (age effects) as to socio-political conditions during the formative years. However, each generation has also experienced historical events that could correlate with a particular worldview.

Boomers came of age in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, creating skepticism about the need for foreign military intervention as well as a distrust of government and public officials in general. GenXers grew up in the era of massive layoffs and economic globalization, possibly contributing to an opportunistic and “everyone for himself” view of the workplace. The experience of Millenials included the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in addition to the Great Recession. Having reached adulthood in insecure and uncertain times, Millenials may have reasonably adopted a “seize the day” attitude in a perilous world.

GenGap5_ Van Hettinga

Quantitative studies have demonstrated that there are measurable differences between generational cohorts. In a large-scale comparison of Boomers and GenXers, Benson and Brown found that Boomers were significantly more likely to be satisfied with their job and less likely to quit, even when controlling for a range of other variables including age. While job security and co-worker support were important to Boomers, lack of co-worker support impacted the organizational commitment and willingness to quit of GenXers. Alternatively, job motivation, promotional opportunities and supervisor support were important to both groups.

Other studies have suggested that intra-generational variation in work attitudes can be equally significant between generations. This is particularly so for workers on generational year cusps. That is, a later-born Boomer may be more similar to an earlier-born GenXer than either is to persons born in the middle of their respective cohorts. Additionally, an individual whose primary earner parent was subject to layoff and had to take a lower-paying job by necessity will have a different attitude toward organizational loyalty than someone who did not have this experience—regardless of their birth year cohort.

As any parent of teenagers can attest, the so-called “generation gap” is nothing new. However, within the past 10 years it has received attention with respect to its implications in the workplace. From the standpoint of HR management, these differences in work attitudes can create inter-employee conflicts, which ultimately can negatively affect productivity.

A typical scenario is that GenXers regard Boomers as outdated and irrelevant old geezers who don’t know how to use technology, while Boomers view GenXers and Millenials as narcissistic slackers who don’t know how to dress or behave appropriately in the workplace. Inter-generational conflict thus takes on a dynamic that is similar to other diversity-related issues. The challenge for management is to encourage employees not only to tolerate these differences, but also to appreciate the benefits that these differences bring to the task or mission at hand.

While various studies may debate whether generational differences are relevant, the research is generally in agreement that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing job satisfaction and inter-employee conflict. The benefit of this research is that it calls attention to changing work attitudes and deepens understanding of our relationship with work.

Author: Brynne VanHettinga obtained a J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1992, followed by a varied career representing middle and working class employees and families (Arizona and North Carolina), regulating/prosecuting financial entities (Florida), and legislative analysis and lobbying (Texas). In February 2015, Brynne was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University. Brynne’s email is [email protected]

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