Bridging the Gap

Across the generational divide in the federal workplace.


hree decades ago, the term "generation gap" was used mostly to describe conflicts between parents and their children. Today the gap-actually several gaps-has more of a presence in the workplace, where employees from different generations are finding it difficult to work side by side because their experiences, goals and expectations differ.

In federal offices, cubicles and lunchrooms, executives, managers and employees are struggling to build a bridge across a divide that spans no fewer than four generations.

Do any of the following stories sound familiar? An older manager complains about a brash, insensitive younger boss who barks orders at him. A computer programmer in his 40s makes cutting remarks about the young Web designer who "comes in whenever she wants." A young employee can't get over how inept older people are when it comes to using the Internet.

This is the first time so many different generations have worked side by side, according to Ron Zemke, president of Performance Research Associations Inc., a human resources consulting firm headquartered in Minneapolis. To manage this diverse workforce, government leaders must try to understand the mind-sets of different generations and how each group sees the world based on their experience, says Zemke, co-author of Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters (American Management Association, 2000).

The ones complaining the loudest are "Generation Xers" (born between 1961 and 1980) and "Baby Boomers" (born between 1944 and 1960), the two groups dominating the federal stage. But two other generations also are adding their voices to the cacophony of discord, raising the level of confusion. "Veterans," those born between 1922 and 1943, are still on the job across government, too fit to quit. Members of "Generation Next" (those born after 1980) are quietly but confidently finishing up their internships and preparing to fill the slots that will open as Boomers retire in the coming years.

Members of different generations-especially Boomers and Gen Xers-can have strikingly different views and expectations of their jobs. "Baby Boomers extended the workweek from a standard 38 hours to 60 hours, adding a month to the work year," says Ann Thomas, a consultant with the American Management Association. "Xers, on the other hand, want to go home at 5 and play. They learned from their parents' experiences that going by the company rules doesn't guarantee you a job."

Xers, Thomas adds, also want flexible schedules, independence, professional growth, mentors, interesting work and time off. Nexters are motivated by similar incentives, but seek more direction. Veterans work best when there is personal contact, strong leadership and direction. Boomers want work that will give them recognition, praise and fame.

"People in each generation have more in common than just age," adds Zemke. "They share memories of the same world-shaping events, same childhood heroes, and early work experiences. And each generation shares many of the same attitudes toward work and leadership." Accommodating the needs of employees ranging in age from 18 to 80, and motivating such a diverse workforce, are not easy tasks, Zemke concedes. But they are increasingly important as many managers and employees in the top two generational tiers contemplate the possibility of retirement within the next few years.

Mutual Mentors

Many federal executives already are adapting their supervisory styles to accommodate the needs of younger staffers while still providing leadership to Baby Boomers and Veterans, says Thomas. "Many managers," she says, "are becoming aware of the differences that exist between generations."

Giving employees from different generations the support, information and challenges they need is particularly important now, says Nicole Butler, manager of the diversity program at the Health and Human Services Department. "We will be losing a significant number of people eligible for retirement by 2005," she says. "The question is, how do we create a culture that draws in the younger ages? How do you retain Boomers and motivate them? There needs to be a platform where knowledge-sharing can happen."

HHS is taking the lead in helping employees become aware of generational differences.

It recently held a workshop, led by Zemke's company, on how the four generations can work together. Hundreds of HHS employees gathered in an auditorium-and thousands more across the country tuned in via a satellite TV broadcast-to hear the lecture and see a short film about the cultural, artistic and historical events that define each of the generations.

After the lecture, participants were told to break into smaller groups that included members of the different generations. The young and old shuffled around the room awkwardly trying to figure out the ages of strangers in their midst, wondering whether it was OK to ask. The Nexters and Veterans were easy to spot. It was hard to tell the Xers from the Boomers, though, because they are closer in age. Each group was given a case study outlining a typical problem, and the multi-generational team had to solve it. In one case, a 27-year-old whiz-kid manager complained that a 63-year-old colleague treated her like "the girl who came across the street to mow my grass." In another, a manager asked his employees to stay late to finish a project. Boomers were willing to do so, but Xers argued the request was unreasonable because they "have a life" outside of work.

Participants shared success stories of generations working together. John Grady, a grants management executive who has been at HHS for 20 years, says that young and old employees could serve as mutual mentors. Grady, a Veteran, related how at a recent training session on grants management software programs, he stood next to a much younger employee and said: "We may as well sit together." Grady figured that he should sit next to someone who knew a lot more about computers.

"If I had a question about computers he could point me to the right spot on the keyboard," Grady said. On the other hand, "over lunch, I figured he might ask, 'Do we ever use such and such analysis?' and I could draw on uses from several decades of experience. He could mentor me in the current use of equipment. I could mentor him in the context in which it can be used." The exchange of knowledge made the two men equals in a sense. Once you start working together, Grady said, people forget all about the stereotypes of the generations and focus on the task at hand.

Most managers believe that intergenerational diversity is an asset. The first step to creating this harmony is to ask your staffers how they would like to work, says Roy Tucker, director of organizational and employee development at HHS. "I've learned that the young crowd, especially Xers, have low tolerance for bureaucracy and rules, especially regarding time and attendance. So I encourage them to take advantage of flexible time schedules."

"I tell people that there are some rules that have to be honored, and I explain why," he says. "But there is lots of flexibility, so we can find a way to make the rules work for us."

He also uses the flextime benefit to recruit workers. To lure a Generation Xer from outside the government to manage of an important Web-based project, Tucker found out about her personal goals and fashioned the job around her schedule. "She wanted to take a class on Monday and Wednesday, and we arranged her working hours around that."

Before the young manager came on board however, Tucker wanted to make sure the Boomers she'd be working with-many of whom still believed in the negative stereotype of Xers as unmotivated slackers-were on their best behavior. To manage the generational tension, Tucker emphasized that the new manager would take some of the workload from the existing staff, giving the Boomers the chance to focus on different projects.

The Boomers greeted the new manager with open minds and fell in love with her by the end of her first day. "They were so impressed with her skills," says Tucker. "She is highly organized, very task-oriented and is moving faster than the Boomers expected. The Boomers are pleased because somebody is finally there to help them. The [project] is really taking off, and that overcomes any angst about generational differences."

From X to Next

Offering a flexible work schedule is one way to accommodate the needs of the younger generation. Xers and Nexters also value professional development and seek mentors to show them the ropes. One Xer almost quit her job because, she says, her Boomer boss was a controlling, self-righteous micro-manager. She'll never forget the time when he said to her at a meeting, "Oh, you're probably too young to remember the Cold War."

"I felt like telling him off," she says years later, speaking from a cell phone outside her office building, where she asked to be called so she could freely berate him and lambaste his cronies. "I wanted to say, 'Are you telling me that my place at the table isn't earned or that I don't deserve to be here because I don't remember the Beatles?' " At the time, though, she wasn't nearly as articulate. So she said nothing. Luckily, she hooked up with another Xer who took her under her wing and helped her build a portfolio of marketable skills. "I was working on a project," she says, "and a manager recruited me into her office. We worked together for five years. Every time she moved up to higher positions, I moved up with her. I learned a lot from her about how timing in an organization impacts your ability to be a contributor. She had the same frustration working with Boomers. One Boomer said she had to be here 15 years before she could be taken seriously."

At the Labor Department, seasoned managers become mentors to newly hired interns. Phil Sturm, a Boomer economist, is training a 23-year-old intern on how to verify company data for industry analysis reports. In the morning, he makes the calls while she watches. In the afternoon, she calls and he watches. The program lasts three weeks. Interns, he says, like the personal attention, the immediate feedback and the fun. When they graduate, everyone goes out for happy hour to celebrate.

Sturm says social integration is built into the program so interns-many of whom don't have family or friends in the area-can better connect with the staff. "We take them under our wings socially," he says. "We tell them what's going on in Washington, that going to Dewey Beach [in Delaware] and staying at a big house with a bunch of people is a real 'your-age' thing to do." His office has fun with generational differences. At the annual picnic, employees form teams based on age and compete with each other. "This year's picnic theme was Survivors," Sturm says. "We had a tug-of-war and pie-eating contest. The geezers won. They ate the most pie!"

Sturm likes having Nexters around because they are lively and interesting. Like many Boomers, he refuses to outgrow his youthful spirit. "I still ride a skateboard on a regular basis," he says. "I want them to think, 'He has gray hair, but he is cool. He has three kids but can still do happy hour.'" Sturm also has practical reasons for enjoying the company of Nexters-they fix his computer problems. "I don't hesitate to say, 'I'm stumped. Can you help me set up my address book? I know it's stupid and you learned to do that in fifth grade.'"

Learning Styles

The managers who do the best job of managing across the generations understand how much supervision and instruction different kinds of employees need. John Neesen, chief of budget and program analysis at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says Xers don't need a lot of detailed instruction. "They have a good grasp on the way they need to gather information," says Neesen, who supervises 13 people ranging in age from 23 to 50. "They are organized, and I know that they'll do the project differently every time. Baby Boomers who've been here a while . . . are maturing, getting more resistant to change, comfortable with the way they do things. Gen Xers are still looking for change.

"When I assign something that requires thinking outside the box," Neesen says, "I tend to give [it] to younger folks with less experience but who are going to be interested in pulling something together. I give Boomers projects with a lot of detail that they can understand because of their experience with the program."

The younger generations also learn differently than the older ones. Having grown up in the video age, wielding a remote control and clicking a mouse, the typical Xer or Nexter assimilates information quickly and can focus on many things at once. Such multi-tasking is useful for consuming huge amounts of information. Many older workers haven't developed these skills because they didn't need them growing up. They tend to view younger staffers as scattered and inattentive to detail.

These different styles of learning have implications in the design of training classes. Bill Vincent, a training specialist at the Veterans Affairs Department Medical Center in Buffalo, N.Y., says older students typically are more task-oriented, while younger ones are more experimental. When he does a training session on using presentation software, for instance, he keeps the young and old on their toes by "incorporating exercise activities interspersed with the lecture so people can play a little and learn a little. We'd start off with a generic discussion of what makes a good presentation. After that, the session becomes more didactic."

While the old guard is troubleshooting, the kids are up and running. "They start exploring on their own as soon as you turn your back to the board," he says. "One person would be mixing slides with purple and green just to experience it. I may be talking about menu options and then look over and see a young woman reading her e-mail. The older ones use a map, rather than trying to figure out where they need to go."

When Harry Ray, a training instructor in the VA's Western New York Health Care System, teaches a management class, he knows what the older workers expect and what the younger ones need to learn. He mixes new media with traditional management concepts. "Young people learn differently," he says. "I try to do games and massive storytelling, because their attention span is shorter."

One of Ray's goals is to introduce the older and newer generations to each other in a playful way that puts everyone at ease. When each side gets a glimpse into the other's world, he says, the lines of communication open up.

This is the first time in the history of the modern workforce that federal employees are working closely both with people who are as young as their children and as old as their parents. Federal managers are realizing that age has just as much to do with employees' hopes, learning styles and expectations as do culture, gender and other characteristics. By understanding each generation and by giving employees what they need to thrive, managers can do much to improve productivity and morale.

Marcela Kogan is a Washington-area freelance writer.

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