real roots can help you decide what you can do to eliminate—or
at least mitigate—it.
The next time you hear someone at work talking about a per-
son from another generation in a negative way—whether older or
younger—remember that what is being said isn’t just about dislik-
ing that individual’s clothes or hairstyle or earrings or way of speak-
ing. Often underlying the speciﬁc complaints is the belief that the
individual isn’t doing things as he or she should—with the attendant
assumption that the person complaining gets to decide how some-
one should behave. In some cases, the person who is so upset is seek-
ing either to maintain or to increase his or her own clout by ﬁnding
something wrong with someone else of another generation.
What You Need to Do
You have to accept generational conﬂict as an inevitable part of
work and deal with it the way you do all the other status issues in
the workplace. Remember that whenever you go into any conver-
sation, the relative clout of the participants is part of the dynamic.
Remember that issues surrounding who should be listening to
whom, whose opinions should be listened to most closely, and who
should be reporting to whom are often more about how much re-
spect, deference, and control people think they should have than
about actual competence or productivity at work.
People assume that with experience comes knowledge. That is
true in theory, but we all know the old saying about someone who
has had one year of experience—20 times. What is important
about experience is the knowledge gained from it, and how much
knowledge people accumulate from their experiences has nothing
to do with age and everything to do with how good they are at
learning from those experiences. True, older people have had
more experiences and have had more time to process and accu-
mulate knowledge than have younger people—but that doesn’t
mean that they’ve taken advantage of their head start.
Part of the human condition is the understanding that older
people should be deferred to because of their greater experience
and therefore (it is assumed) greater knowledge. The cultural
norm that older people have more authority than younger ones is
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deeply ingrained, even as people talk about how “youth focused”
the United States is. The assumption that older people have more
authority isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just causes problems when
younger people are promoted ahead of older ones, which turns
the typical authority relationship upside down.
Luckily the generation gap at work is one more of appearance
than of substance. As we said in the beginning,
• People want about the same things at work, no matter what
generation they are from.
• You can effectively work with or manage people from all gen-
You just need to remember—and put into practice—the prin-
ciples we’ve discussed here.
© The New Yorker Collection 2001 Lee Lorenz, from cartoonbank.com. All rights reserved.
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1. All generations have similar values.
2. Everyone wants respect.
3. Trust matters.
4. People want leaders who are credible and trustworthy.
5. Organizational politics is a problem—no matter how old (or
young) you are.
6. No one really likes change.
7. Loyalty depends on the context, not on the generation.
8. It’s as easy to retain a young person as an older one—if you do
the right things.
9. Everyone wants to learn—more than just about anything else.
10. Almost everyone wants a coach.
You can use some of our suggestions—which are based on our
data and experience—for applying these principles. And you’ll un-
doubtedly come up with your own techniques that work in the con-
text of your own workplace.
Remember, you don’t have to tie yourself into knots (or
worse!) trying to accommodate each generation’s individual
whims, and you don’t have to worry about learning a new set of
whims when the next generation comes along. People from dif-
ferent generations are largely alike in what they think, believe, and
want from their work life. Once people accept this fact, and make
their actions consistent with the principles that apply to working
with people of all generations, the gap will be retired.
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