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How to get along with Generation Gaps in the Work Place

Updated on May 6, 2012

Multi-Generational Work Force

No one can afford to retire

Isn't that the truth? We will soon see workers as old as 70 years working along side 20 somethings because no one can afford to stop working. Gone are the days of the retirement dinners and the gold watches. No one will be leaving. I am noticing it already in my office. But something truly wonderful is taking place. People who would have never interacted are making friends with each other particularly people of much different age groups. People in their 20s are working along side people in their 60s and finding more in common than uncommon.

Diversity in the workplace started long ago helped by affirmative action laws. I am a person who benefited from affirmative action and have no regrets but with today's economy and lack of new jobs being created, older workers cannot stop working. What is happening is a naturally occurring kind of diversity taking place within offices today. Diversity of ages more than ethnic diversity. No longer are all the workers young but now there are young, middle age or older workers.

It is a much different World today than it was in the 1970s when affirmative action forced employers to hire people outside of their usual staff-white males.

1976 Help Wanted Ad: Only Women need Apply

I answered an ad in the newspaper for an insurance company in Los Angeles. The ad made it clear: only women need apply. Apparently, the company had recently been fined by the State labor board for coming up short on quotas...or something like that, it was hard for me a young 22 year old "girl" obviously intimidated, to understand anything being said by these three suited , chain smoking men who continually blew smoke in my face as one ranted about "women do not belong in this position" and snarled at me as if I had filed the complaint! It would never had dawned on me to say anything to him as to the inappropriateness of his comments. I wanted the job, and too, once hired, I would not speak out against any man's inappropriate comments for fear of getting fired. As it was, I had just lost my job as a file clerk for another large insurance company because I became ill with chicken pocks and had to be off work for several weeks. The man who hired me said "oh that is too long, sorry we need to let you go" when I called the labor board I was told "an employer can fire you for whatever reason they want whenever they want!" It was the Nixon years, what can I say.

So I now found myself responding to an ad entitled "Only Women need Apply". As I listened to these angry suit clad men drone on, It became clear to me women who worked at the company were limited to positions in the secretarial pool regardless of their educational background. No amount of ambition was going to help these women achieve any position of responsibility although, these same women were responsible for training the recent male college recruits. Some of the secretaries got fed up (and rightfully so) with the constant stream of white males getting hired into positions above them so they filed complaints with the labor board. Pay no mind to the fact affirmative action had been law for about 4 years prior to my getting a "man's job" it apparently was not being enforced. Once a complaint was filed and the labor board actually took it seriously, it set male only employers into a frenzy, thus making my future employer go on a hiring binge for women. Women. Women of all sizes, shapes and colors would do to fill the quotas needed and get the State off their ass.

What role did I fulfill? I fulfilled the white college girl quota and was hired in with 3 African American women, 2 Mexican American women and one "older" woman (she was 30!). We were all brought on at once and placed in the training group lead by a former Marine Sargent, who had little patience for women and not enough faith in us to want to waste his time to actually train us. He started our first session with "most of you will not complete this program" and "you will either get married and quit or leave screaming and crying like the babies you are". None of us blinked for fear he would make us drop and do 20!

Be Smarter, Work Harder-Do Better

Our motley group of people, who might never have interacted but for affirmative action, were now a tightly bonded group on a mission to prove the man wrong about us. We needed to be better, smarter and work harder than any training group. We all quickly became friends united in one common cause-Do BETTER. It was our motto and we said it all the time to each other, especially when one of us seemed to be getting frustrated and close to walking away--- Do Better!

After completing training, successfully becoming the highest achieving training group ever in the history of the company, we were assigned to various different departments within the company. We all remained friends for a long time afterwards. Meeting up at get togethers at each other's homes, slumber parties, night clubbing. It was wonderful. Diverse people who never would have gotten together in segregated Los Angeles of the 1970s. Yes Los Angeles was separated by neighborhoods of black and white back then and still somewhat today.

Cha-cha-cha CHANGES

Lot of things have changed in the industry that first gave me the opportunity to do a white collar male job. It has been thirty years. I have worked for lots of men.Men older than me, men younger than me. To be honest, all of the men whom I have worked for have encouraged me, pushed me and helped me be much better at what I do.

I have also worked for many women. Some of them have been horrid and worse than any man at being sexist. Others have been mentors to me. Currently my boss is an African American woman who is wonderful at delegating and encouraging all of us on her team.

I relate to my boss more than others on our team because we are the same age, share the same experience in our chosen industry and we have similar educational backgrounds. We both entered the work force at the same time and both struggled to be accepted in a male dominated industry, her more than I because she had the added race thing. We both take issue with a certain younger staff member of our little "team" who is female because of her apparent lack of acknowledgement of the importance of being part of our team and the need to do better, be the best, work harder as a woman.

We were hand picked to work on a new account for a company run by other women and even if the industry we work in has changed somewhat and evened up the men versus women in the management positions, it is still largely a business run by men. There is still the need to prove yourself worthy to be in your position. I especially want to do a good job to make my female boss look her best.

However, unlike my boss and I who feel the burden to be better/work harder to prove ourselves worthy not only to our client but our still male dominated upper management our younger Gen X er teammate not so much. The way she dresses for client meetings, the discussions she feels are okay to have while eating lunch with clients, all seem very inappropriate for business. What happened to the need to be serious to be taken seriously?

My younger co-worker never had to prove herself or show her bosses she could do the job as well or better than any man. She had the door opened by women like me and my boss. Because of her freedom to take for granted the job she has been hired to do, she tends to take advantage of things.

Back in the day, when my children were young and I was still struggling to prove myself worthy of a man's job, I would never tell my boss I had to leave to pick up a sick child for fear of hearing him say "you see this is why I do not like to hire women with children!"

My younger coworker has no fear of such admonishment and has left early-at least 3 times-in the first month of being hired for her child and not only when the kid was sick, but one time for simply the fact her child "wanted to see me". I could only imagine the early days of my career telling my male boss with the stay at home wife that my child "missed me" he would roll his eyes and say "oh brother, we can't have you leave for silly reasons or everyone else will want time off too for their silly reasons!" I would like to think my younger coworker has benefit of the freedom to be a mom over a worker because me and other women helped pave the way, but she shows no sign of knowing about women who fought for rights or understanding of what she has been given. Generation gap?

On the other hand, my younger coworker could be someone who just has no work ethic. Maybe it is not a generation gap but more possibly she is just lazy because I have worked with many, many hard working people in their 20s. They put me to shame more likely than not.

Good Things can Happen when people are thrown together

It is not all bad news. In the 30 years of working in corporate America I have seen changes for the better. Gone are the days when supervisors would tell racist jokes at office meetings. They may still tell bad jokes but at least they tell them behind closed doors.

The benefits of the advances we have made to have a more fair and diverse work force has allowed for some people to be who they really are instead of hidden away in the closet. Back in the day, a gay person could not be openly gay. Men over the age of 25 who lived with other men were called "confirmed bachelors". To be openly gay was....well it was career suicide.

When I was still a young naive person, I had a coworker named "Jerry" who lived in a gorgeous beautifully decorated home in the hills above Los Angeles. Jerry would host the office Christmas Party at his home every year. Jerry's "roommate" would go to extremes with the Christmas decorations in and outside their home and serve the most delicious appetizers. As a young 20 year old who was never exposed to gays (at least not that I was aware of), I always impressed by Jerry's home and curious as to why he never married. I remember asking my boss at one of Jerry's parties "Has Jerry ever had a girlfriend?" My boss nearly spit out his drink. I said "Do you think Jerry hasn't found the right woman or is he still looking" My boss laughed out loud and said "I think he is looking more for a good man". Jerry was so far in the closet it was hard for anyone to see he preferred men over women. I felt sad for Jerry and sadder still for his partner who could not be around Jerry's friends and coworkers as Jerry's better half.

Fast forward to today and "Scotty" the 20 something cubical neighbor of mine at work, is openly gay. Scotty is a wonderful, kind and very much loved Administrative Assistant. He and his partner have just bought their first home together and every morning, Scotty gives me the latest update on what new furniture they bought, what art work they hung and what his beloved partner Shane made for dinner the night before. I must admit, I am happy Scotty can be himself. I am impressed at his courage and his lack of inhibitions of speaking freely and openly about his life. I also feel honored that he speaks to me like a friend even though I am older than his mother.

The older workers and the younger workers have bonded together over technology. The technology generation has it over us older workers--hands down so when it comes to my 62 year old coworker cussing out the computer as he tries to upload documents to a folder it is sweet to see my 24 year old coworker run to his aid. This is the actual conversation they had:

Ned (the 62 year old) "Why doesn't this thing upload my documents. I've done it 3 times"

Tyler (the 24 year old) "let me see. I think you need to open up the documents, then upload"

Ned "Hey did you get my text message last night when the game was on?"

Tyler "Yea dude. You are sooo funny"

Ned "Well what kind of moron misses that play"

Tyler "so true. Are you going to the game next week"

Ned "No I don't have tickets"

Tyler "I have an extra. Will the wife let you out"

Ned "only if you have me home before midnight sober"

Tyler "of course dude"

People from diverse backgrounds, generations apart, brought together by need to work become friends.

Can't we all Just get Along

Can we all get along? It is simple to get along with following a few standard rules. Don't discuss politics or religion with your coworkers. You are not going to change anyone, so don't waste your time-especially on me. And, remember the following:

  • Do not think you know it all, no matter what your age. Baby boomer, Gen X and all the rest. Listen to your fellow coworkers as you would any peer.
  • Do not judge. That means youngsters and oldsters alike. We all need to work together. Try to keep personal likes and dislikes out of work place.
  • Accept the fact you are getting older and the young will succeed you. Listen to their opinions. Be understanding. Don't play parent to their youngster.
  • You are never too old to learn something new.

We are all going to be together for a while in this cubicle waste land so we might as well enjoy ourselves oh and..........if there is one thing that really unites the age groups, it is the pooling of money for buying the lotto tickets--on that we all agree no matter what the age gap. Who knows you might just get lucky!


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    • Askme profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you Lindacee for stopping by, voting and posting. I am going to check out your hubs especially the one about making some homemade wrinkle cream--could most definitely use some of that!!

    • lindacee profile image

      Linda Chechar 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Wow, am I feeling the full effects of dealing with younger workers. I recently re-entered the workforce after a 10 year+ absence. Have things ever changed! I guess what surprised me most is that anyone would hire someone over the age of 50. (Glad they did.) I work in a retail setting, so I have to deal with a variety of younger co-workers (there are only a couple around my age). Having been on the job for less than 2 months, I am also deferring to someone half my age (or more) for information and questions. That alone seems to help bridge the gap. Wonderful and informative Hub -- especially for those of us who may never be able to retire! Voted up, useful and interesting. Great perspective on the face of the modern workplace!

    • Askme profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you for stopping by and reading PageC. You are so right about learning from working with others who come from a different background then yours. I have learned lots and continue.

    • PageC profile image


      6 years ago

      I learn so much from working with people who are different from me, just love it! I also love your spirit and open-mindedness.


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