Technology and its Effects on the Trans-Generational Gap in the Workforce
With the invention of the Internet and the high speed at which information is transmitted, it can be observed that the rate of time between when new technology changes are introduced and when they become common household items is exponentially shorter than in previous years. Technology and information are so closely related that each generation has a defining technological advancement that can be used to identify each generation. Could the rapid rate of changes in technology and the rapid speed at which information is transmitted be also associated with the rapidly increasing generational gap between previous generations in the American Workforce?
Each generation has a generalized time and certain characteristics and stereotypes associated with individuals who are generally born in that generation. (See table)
The Traditionalist generation, born between 1925 and 1942, was defined technologically by the gas-powered engine. Automotive production on a commercial scale started in France in 1890 but was not fully realized in the U.S. until around 1908 with the introduction of the Ford Model T car. This generation survived the Great Depression, World War I and is primary responsible for the U.S. Industrial Revolution. Individuals born in the Traditionalist generation can be characterized as hardworking & dedicated, and respectful of rules and authority.
The television was the defining technological advancement for those born within the Baby Boomer generation (1943 and 1960). With the invention of the television in 1925 by Scottish Inventor, John Baird, it took almost 40 years for the resulting invention to become a standard household item. “Before 1947 the number of U.S. homes with television sets could be measured in the thousands. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of U.S. homes had at least one television set, and those sets were on for an average of more than seven hours a day.” (Fisher, 1996) Members of this generation are products of World War II, and the Vietnam War, and are credited with the introduction of feminism, civil rights, and modern music. Baby Boomers are characterized as youthful in self-identity, optimistic, team players, and competitive.
Born between 1943 and 1960,
the Gen X generation was defined technologically by the personal computer and the Internet. With the introduction of this invention the speed at which information is transmitted and processed has exponentially increased while allowing unlimited information to be easily accessible on any computing device. This generation is credited with ending the Cold War, introducing video games, fueling the technology bubble, and promoting entrepreneurship. Members of the Gen X generation are characterized by their Balanced (work/life quality), their desire to be self-reliant, and pragmatic.
Generation Y members, also known as millennials, were born between 1982–2002. Their defining technology is the iPhone and other mobile devices. Apple introduced its first iPhone in 2007 and by 2012 reached sales of 40 million. With the introduction of this device, unlimited information could be accessed from anywhere, leading to the rise of social media, and the need to analyze, process, and understand big data.
The single commonality among the generations is that with the introduction of new technology presents new challenges and changes in preferred forms of communication. According to Kevin Lee , a prominent Labor and Employee Relations Director , “Within the Federal Government and private sector, the biggest challenges are getting the different generations to understand each other, and what I mean by that is not that there is an actual language barrier but understanding each other when it comes to work, work ethic, expectations, work performance and what they need to do to efficiently accomplish a common goal.” (Lee, 2017) It can be surmised that we are not only changing technology, but technology may also be changing us.
It is common knowledge that members of the baby boomer generation are quickly approaching retirement age. It is also common knowledge that many of them are also simply choosing not to retire. The resulting impact is that for the first time in American industrialized history, there are three distinctly different generations working in the same work force at the same time. Why is this happening now? A. McGrory author of Baby Boomers are Reaching Age 65, But are They Actually Retiring, notes that approximately 46 percent of baby boomers plan to delay retirement. Many have chosen to speculate that this is due to the ever changing retirement hurdles that “stem from the newer employer-sponsored retirement models that are based on a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k).” (McGrory, 2012) I agree with McGrory that retirement models may be a factor but I also think that the answer to this question is simply baby boomers just want to stay young and relevant as characterized by the generational characteristics introduced earlier. Baby Boomers watched the previous generation, the traditionalist, and noticed that after retirement people have tendency to lose purpose and direction and rather than “sit around and wait to die,” in an unprecedented effort to “say young” they changed the face of the modern workforce by prolonging retirement. This proved to future generations that baby boomers still had something to contribute in today’s workforce.
The results of this new evolving workforce demographic now include the “seasoned” worker or baby boomers, who possess a plethora of knowledge and age-old wisdom, along with a new infusion of Millennials who possess superior technological savviness and out of the box ideas used to leverage technology to increase productivity and efficiency. “Millennials are able to learn and adapt quick to technology, however, often they are reluctant to embrace “legacy” systems and processes. They find it difficult to integrate the old with the new and are sometimes more quickly willing to throw “the baby out with the bath water” and move on to the next task. When that happens, the communications between the older generations and the younger generations tend to become strained as they do not always “speak each other’s language or are on the same page.” (Lee, 2017) This creates what I know to be the trans-generational gap in the American workforce. With the introduction of these vastly different generations into the workforce we are presented with many opportunities along with many challenges to harness the untapped potential of a trans-generational workforce. “From one generation to another, there are significant differences in “world view” and “work styles.” Thus, new generation gaps are continually emerging in the workplace, and most of them center around communication and the use of technology. In organizations, these gaps can contribute to misunderstanding, miscommunication, conflict and the corresponding loss of productivity. On the upside, the ability to recognize and bridge these gaps can create a powerful competitive advantage.” (Bernstein & Alexander, 2008) One of the best way to promote collaboration in such a diverse environment is to focus on the strengths and weakness of each generation, and identify how the strength of one group can augment the weakness of another, resulting in a natural collaboration and partnership. This leads to a mutual understanding and a more collaborative work environment. Another way to bridge this disconnect is to focus on generational empathy. Unfortunately, general displays of empathy have been on a steady decline based on Konrath, O’Brien, and Hsing’s (2011) meta-analysis of 72 studies on empathy conducted with college-age students from 1972 to 2009. This study indicated that there has been a steady decline of empathy by 40 percent, “as humans become more distant from each other, empathy declines. Individuals who are more distant from the day-to-day struggles and realities of other human beings have less empathy.” (Dolby, 2014) With the invention of the iPhone and other mobile devices, we as a society are moving further and further from social interaction as observed by watching people walking down the street. They are usually focused on an iPhone screen, while using headphones, and not interacting with the world around them. Has Technology become a way to escape reality?
As a member of the Millennial generation, I agree that we are typically technologically savvy and ,“As a group, are more diverse, globally oriented and more knowledgeable of computers and technology than any preceding generation.” (Bernstein & Alexander, 2008) With the introduction of the Internet, Facebook, Instagram, and iPhones we are constantly sorting through technology fueled by information overload while in the process becoming known as the self-absorbed “me” generation. We often find it difficult to relate to others on a personal level outside of our standard technologically induced coma. My response to this observation is that technology made us that way. As a generation we have been groomed to become technological data miners. We are very efficient at locating, analyzing, and processing data. There is so much data out there that we really do not have time to “relate” or slow down long enough to “put ourselves in the shoes of others.” It is probably easier and safer for us to be emotionally disconnected because there are other people who tend to hide behind the anonymity of technology to be cruel, as exemplified by the new term “cyber bullies.” It is easier to be cruel to someone via email or text message directly to their face. To protect ourselves from the dangers of technology, freedom of speech, and the right to express random thoughts without filters, to some degree Millennials are required to lack certain forms of empathy to maintain sanity and a sense of individuality.
An example of the disconnect between generations often occurs when baby boomers who have the wisdom of time and are characterized by optimism, a reluctance to grow old (Bernstein & Alexander, 2008), attempt to interact with a Millennial on a personal/individual level. Millennials are not always sure how to process that interaction and rather than wasting valuable time trying to figure it out, and understand the motive, most of the time we dismiss the conversation as noise. Interactions like this occur in the modern work place daily, resulting in failures to communicate, inefficiencies in the workplace, and consistent misunderstandings among the generations. According to J. Ware, author of Training Tomorrow’s Workforce, “Businesses who have not been able to successfully navigate this issue and use it to its advantage will become obsolete and will be left behind.” (Ware, Craft, & Kerschenbaum, 2007)
How can an organization promote intergenerational communication and collaboration? One of the best places is during the introduction, implementation, and training of new technology. During these trainings, there should be very candid discussions regarding Generational values, Generational stereotypes and biases, and Promoting constructive communication and motivation. When having these discussions within an organization, it allows individuals to “open up” and naturally express their challenges to promote empathy and a mutual understanding among generations. “A multigenerational workforce is, by its very nature, dynamic. It will continue to bring new ways of learning, communicating and working into organizations.” (Bernstein & Alexander, 2008).
The current American workforce is comprised of multiple generations, all defined and shaped by its own technological advancements. As the face of the American job force continues to evolve, companies and people will continue to grapple with the issue of how to better incorporate each generation into their workforce. Those organizations and people who are most successful with incorporating all generations will be the first to reap the reward of diversity within the workforce. “The question is not, “Will you have a multigenerational workplace?” The question is, “Are you prepared?” (Bernstein & Alexander, 2008)
Bernstein, L., & Alexander, D. (2008). GENERATIONS: HARNESSING THE POTENTIAL OF THE MULTIGENERATIONAL WORKFORCE. The Catalyst;, 17–22.
Dolby, N. (2014). The Future of Empathy: Teaching the Millennial Generation. Journal of College and Character, 39–44.
Fisher, D. E. (1996). Tube: The invention of Television. New York: Counterpoint; F First Edition edition (March 27, 1996).
Lee, K. (2017, October 5). Director of Labor & Employee Relations. (G. Duncan, Interviewer)
McGrory, A. (2012). Baby boomers are reaching age 65, but are they actually retiring? Benefits Selling.
Ware, J., Craft, R., & Kerschenbaum, S. (2007). TRAINING TOMORROW’S WORKFORCE. Alexandria, 58–60.