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Generational Conflict at Work? It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

June 21, 2019

Much has been studied about multiple generations in the workforce, and often, the opportunities age diversity presents get lost in the worries about generational tension.

It’s becoming more common for 20-somethings and 70-somethings to work together on the same teams. Many older people have been delaying retirement in recent years, while eager younger workers—who are likely to be in touch with the latest ideas and innovations—are joining their older colleagues in leadership positions.

So, how is age diversity working out for employers? Every workplace is different, of course, but at least one recent study points to signs of harmony.

Multiple Generations Are an Asset

Office technology giant Ricoh USA released research in May showing that 71% of 1,500 survey respondents across the United States and Canada believe a cross-generational workplace is an asset. Of those workers, 76% said they enjoy working alongside colleagues of different ages.

Also, today’s workers of all ages want their employers to strive to bring about positive world change. The researchers say a blurring of the lines between people’s personal and professional lives is driving the unity.

Brad Federman, chief operating officer of HR consultancy F&H Solutions Group, also sees reasons for unity among the generations. “There has never been a big difference between generations at work,” he says. “Most people, regardless of generation, want many of the same things, including being respected, appreciated, developed, and having a voice at work.”

Federman says there are many commonalities across generations—“a universal language if you will.” Their shared goals create strong teamwork and bridge any gaps that do exist, he adds.

Recent research has shed more light on having multiple generations in the workforce and exposed previous assumptions about generational differences, Federman says.

“The original research that people utilized to come up with theories about work were completed over very large populations for marketing purposes and were never meant to be utilized as a leadership or management tool,” Federman says. “The moment people misapplied the research at an individual level is the moment that organizations began to stereotype individuals.”

According to Federman, when conflict crops up, it is usually self-induced because assumptions were made about people, and others were taught to do the same.

Avoiding Conflict

Federman has some advice for companies that experience tension among age groups: “Focus messaging and training on commonalities between generations rather than on differences,” which would also promote inclusivity.

“Most importantly, teach your people to connect and get to know one another,” Federman adds, as it’s difficult for people to stereotype and see each other one-dimensionally if they’ve gotten to know each other.

“When relationships are built and people are committed to one another, they help each other, they learn from each other, and they strengthen each other,” Federman says.

Shared Thinking

The Ricoh research shows that what was seen as a priority only for the youngest workers—an interest in measuring success more than just financially and a desire for employers to be forces for good—is actually a priority shared by multiple generations. Employers have an opportunity to capitalize on that kind of thinking.

“Everyone, every generation cares about more than financial rewards,” Federman says. “People want a sense of pride. They want to know they work for a respected brand that invests in the broader community and develops their people.”

Federman urges organizations to look at how they are perceived on the outside and give people a reason larger than themselves for working for them, ensuring their employees are sharper and more marketable each year.

“Ironically, the more attractive an employee is on the open market because a company invested in them, the more likely that employee will stay,” Federman says. “And those are the employees you need to keep.”