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Retiring the Generation Gap - Does Age Matter?

Updated on March 2, 2019

Are complaints about intergenerational differences legitimate? How can one improve the efficacy of an organization involving people of different age groups? Both younger and older employees of virtually all levels of various professions bemoan generational disparity; a middle-aged employee comments that younger workers respect management less and have no loyalty to the organization (Deal, 2007, p. 34, 129), while a Generation Xer is frustrated by the lack of regard for his or her ideas and opinions (p. 36). Jennifer Deal’s book Retiring the Generation Gap presents the results of a research project conducted by her and her team from the Center for Creative Leadership, aiming to determine what really causes conflict and disconnect between generations at work.

The study included 3,200 respondents born in and currently residing in the United States. At the time the book was written, the project participants ranged in age from 19 to 80 years. The study divided the participants into the following generational groups: Silents, consisting of those born between 1925 and 1945 and who are “quieter” than Baby Boomers; Early Boomers, born after World War II; Late Boomers, the second half of the Baby Boom; Early Xers, the part of Generation X born after the Baby Boom; and Late Xers, the youngest part of Gen X. These groups were used to categorize and analyze responses in the study.

Study participants were given a survey addressing various relevant topics related to challenges and conflict in the workplace. Respondents were asked open-ended questions about such topics as employee retention, career challenges, and generational conflicts that they had in the workplace. Data was collected between 2000 and 2005 for the purpose of the project. Results were categorized according to generational group and organizational level to present data along two dimensions.

Deal and her team concluded from their research that at the workplace, employees of all generations share the same values and desires – including the desire for power and influence, which sits at the base of most intergenerational conflict. Therefore, knowing this can facilitate working with and even managing people of all ages. The similarities shared between generations were explained in the book through ten principles, many of which overlapped in certain aspects and thus can be explained jointly:

· Employees have the same values and desires; they all want respect and trust, learning opportunities and coaches – though no one really likes change or organizational politics. Organizations that provide things that all employees want – such as good compensations, advancement opportunities, and high-quality personal lives – can help ensure higher employee retention.

o Survey respondents were prompted to identify their top ten values that they considered the most important to them from a list of 40 values (p. 15). Family was chosen in the top 10 by 72 percent of respondents, and was chosen in the top three by 60 percent (p. 20). Also, only 12 of 2,500 respondents commented that they like organizational change, while most answered that change at the workplace concerns and even scares them (p. 102).

· Differences between generations may exist in the definitions and modes of expression of things that everyone shares in common.

o Everyone wants respect, but comments made by older respondents indicated that their idea of respect involves sufficient regard of one’s opinions, and doing as they say; meanwhile, younger respondents considered respect to be simple attention to what one says (p. 33).

· Context is an important factor in behavior and interaction between generations.

o While both younger and older employees feel that young people are less loyal to their organizations than in the past, this may have less to do with the loyalty of younger employees than perhaps the changed economic landscape of downsizings and decreased benefits that renders employment more unstable (p. 135-137).

The concepts in Retiring the Generation Gap can be applied to nearly any workplace, including those of the public administration sector. Managerial public personnel administration supports many of the book’s findings regarding intergenerational similarities; for instance, it evaluates employees based on their level of competence rather than age or experience (Rosenbloom & Kravchuk, 2005, p. 218). Orthodox managerial doctrine recognizes the desire shared by all generations to grow and develop by providing employees with training opportunities (p. 218). Orthodox managerial administration realizes that the retention of employees of all ages is encouraged by offering such learning and development opportunities, as well as benefits like valuable retirement systems (p. 218). The Quality of Work Life (QWL) approach promotes retention by providing services that encourage the integration of work and personal lives (p. 234) through programs that allow flexibility in work hours, the ability to work from home, the option to choose childcare or vacation time over raises, and even cafeteria benefits (Edwards, 2009, slide 10).

New public personnel administration generally works in line with the findings from Deal’s study, as it respects the experience of older generations as well as the talent and potential of younger generations through such practices as position classification, regular performance evaluations, and promotion based on merit rather than seniority (Edwards, slide 10). Position classification is an aspect of managerial public personnel administration that organizes jobs into classes, and considers all employees – regardless of age or even experience – of each class to be equally qualified (p. 219). These practices also work to preclude organizational politics by recognizing actual employee performance and thus leaving less room for persuasion and alliances to have influence. Managerial approaches tend to avoid promotion on the basis of seniority, regarding it as an inaccurate measure of productivity (p. 226); younger people therefore have the ability to rise through the ranks without being fettered by age.

In conclusion, Deal’s book Retiring the Generation Gap revealed that generations do differ in some ways, but still share many similarities that can make it easier for people of different ages to interact at the workplace. While context and differences in definitions and expression can contribute to conflict, employees generally want and value the same things; knowing this can allow co-workers and managers to work together with minimized disagreement. These ideas are relevant to all companies and organizations, including those that work with the public; managerial public personnel administrators recognize that competence is not a matter of age; and the key to employee retention is providing benefits that workers of all generations want.

Works Cited

Edwards, F. (2009). PADM 210: Public Personnel Administration [PowerPoint slides].

Deal, J.J. (2007). Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenbloom, D.H., & Kravchuk, R.S. (2005). Public Administration: Understanding Management, Politics, and Law in the Public Sector (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.


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