DisruptED TV Magazine

Managing Generational Differences: Opportunities or Obstacles?

By Dr. Christopher Nagy


Recently my cousin and I worked together to host our Italian Family reunion. Looking around, I was immediately reminded that in front me were five generations among various families and generations. Though debated among researchers of the exact range of ages for each generation, utilizing the most agreed upon ranges, I saw before me the Traditionalists who were born approximately before 1945, 74 years or older and who were telling the stories of days gone by; the Baby Boomers born after 1945 and before 1964 or ages 73–54; the GenXers born after 1964 and before 1980 or ages 53 to 38; the Millennials or Gen Y born after 1980 and before 2000 or ages 37–19 and the fifth generation, not yet officially named, but often referred to as the iGeneration or GenZ or ages 18 and younger and who at my family reunion were glued to their cell phones or ipads. The newest generation will be officially named once the group reaches age 21 according generational guru Chuck Underwood (2007). Having generations next to one another in social circles is nothing new, but what is new is that for the first time in the USA, there are four generations and at times five generations if counting some of the youngest generation yet to be officially named until age 21.

According to Zemke, Raines and Filipczak (2013), each generation is defined by personal and generational signposts, namely from birth to grade six (6) where an individual’s core values and view of the world are influenced by his/her parents and his/her home life, and afterward, are influenced by friends and societal values and experiences up to age 21. This is an important distinction because family and world events influence the basis of a generation’s core values and beliefs. To clarify, the life experiences and teachings a generation learned in their formative years will largely influence their value system (Underwood, 2007). As a result, a generation’s core value system then influences its perspective on education, career and lifestyle selection and consumer choices. There is a myriad of distinguishing factors for each generation that both can unite and distinguish generations some of which are noted by A.K. Robey-Graham (2008) such as family experience, work ethic, work talents, work liabilities, leadership style, view of hierarchies, technology competency, communication style, view on feedback and rewards, family and life balance, mentoring and last among many others, career and training development. This is the reason why a generation cannot be named until those in the generation reach age 21.

Generational Diversity and the Workplace

There are now four generations in the workplace with different expectations, motivations, attitudes, and behaviors. The largest generation in the workplace is the Millennials as of 2015 surpassing the baby boomers for the first time (Birkman, 2016). The challenge in this type of environment of multi-generational workers and ideal is to leverage each generation’s strengths to respond to the organizations purpose and mission.

An understanding of these generational differences can equip one to handle workplace situations with increased insight. This is particularly true in three areas: work ethic, communication styles and broadening technology divide (Birkman, 2016). The younger the generation, the more flexible the desire for work-life balance and hours when and where worked. Furthermore, the younger generations prefer engagement in the fluid use of social media and digital communication tools to be expedient rather than having a dialogue, a preferred and valued approach to older generations. Generations communicate according to their generational backgrounds. The younger generation prefers to work for a team, prefer a flat hierarchy, embrace change for a greater good and believe in sharing resources for the good of the team. Seasoned generations are in a position to share resources, history and applications to real work scenarios providing prospective to newer generations. Of particular challenge to the older generations is the use and application of computer technology, social media and digital resources. Technology is increasing the gap among generations and is among one of the top factors among challenges. Younger generations have multiple outlets to communicate and very quickly. Older generations value facetime connections which take time just to name a few distinctions.

Generational Teamwork Opportunities

Given the fast pace of business and disruption to the way things have always been done and is a phrase often used by older generations, younger generations are placed into situations where they may not have a history or experience to fully navigate complicated situations. Such situations offer opportunities among those of different generations to work together and to leverage their knowledge, resources, experiences and technology expertise. If all work together it provides a competitive edge and depth to decision making. According to Ryan Jenkins of Inc. (2017), it is nearly impossible to learn something new when all on the team have the same mindset, but diverse teams do not maintain, they innovate while building upon one another’s strengths. These diverse teams are better prepared to respond with agility and balanced perspective to constant changes and disruptions in the marketplace.

Extending the importance of diversity in the workplace to enhance form and function of organizations, Jenkins (2017) underscores the importance of cognitive diversity among a team in a multigenerational workplace as highlighting distinct ways of thinking which are experimental, analytical, logical and creative and as such promote innovation, employee engagement and boosts customer satisfaction. Applied to a school, the diversity among the staff when working together and reflective of cognitive diversity impacts for the good, student satisfaction and engagement. When teachers and administrators in schools or workers in a business put their resources and generational signposts together to promote the mission and purpose of the organization, the customer, student or district wins. Consulting and research firm Frank N. Magid Associates (Jenkins, 2017) takes a different approach and notes that in a recent poll, fifty-two percent (52%) of workers say they are least likely to get along with someone from another generation. In fact, according to the executive director of Magid Associates, Sharalyn Orr, noted that in a multigenerational workplace, generational understanding is the new diversity training (Jenkins, 2017). Leaders of organizations then are called to intuitively and intentionally work to unite the multiple generations in the workplace under a common purpose to gain the collective value behind generational diversity.

Maintenance Innovation

Growth Mindset

In studies by Underwood (2007) and James W. Hughes (2017), the largest generation brings certain characteristics, values and experiences of the world that impact the workplace today and is causing disruption given predispositions of other generations in the workplace. Many millennials today live at home, prefer to rent than own, hold multiple jobs, experience in many cases less than five hours of sleep, prefer interactive work zones to feel connected, prefer horizontal hierarchy, value diversity, seek authentic experiences and believe in extended adolescence. Additional light is shed upon the millennials by Zemke, Raines and Filipczak (2013) who in their research found us that millennial in the workplace seek ongoing and immediate feedback. In schools, think about the supervisory process. Millennials seek of leadership to be approachable, is a person to believe in, value expertise and mentorship, those attuned to technology, see them as a valuable to the team and value recognition for contributions. These are just a few examples for the largest generation. Imagine an understanding of all of the generations and the value that this brings to organizations to unleash the potential of organizations and solutions that could be reached as a result of working together based on one another generational strengths.

Key Research Studies

In a recent study by Robert Half International (Lipman, 2017) conducted among phone interviews with CEO’s across the country, the executives identified in the order of importance employee perceptions of those which are the most challenging differences among colleagues of represented in the workplace. They are 1) communication, 2) technical skills, 3) cross-departmental collaboration and 4) no differences.

In the seminal research by Haydn Shaw (2013), he found that there are 12 common sticking points among today’s four generations in the work place that cause conflicts every day among these generational members. If looking to have generations work more effectively with one another, less time should be spent by leaders to try to “fix the other” or spend efforts to play “lets make a deal” with the generational members. This is an opportunity to lead rather than manage and unleash creative solutions to complex issues.

Source: 12 Generational Sticking Points Source — Shaw (2013)

We can watch for sticking points and avoid needless tensions. Furthermore, sticking points can also be the glue that holds the generations together.

Opportunities and Unlocking Organizational Solutions

Creating a culture in the organization to promote the value behind generational diversity and the value that each generation brings to the table, positions those in that organization to be organically wired to communicate with ease like a boomer, exhibit the hard work and grit of a GenXer and the alacrity of a Millennial as digital natives (Jenkins, 2017). This is the challenge for leadership today. Generational diversity understanding by leaders today should be among one of the tools in leader’s toolboxes. Today, leaders are in a position to leverage the experiences of seasoned boomers and traditionalists as mentors and trainers. The formation of committees is essential to operations and consideration should be given to form them by having the generational differences represented to create dialogue and not fences. Leaders should also look at recognizing the contributions of members of the team based on competency and progressive ideas rather than a “wait your turn” pecking order. Furthermore, consideration should be given the importance of “difference deployment” coined by Zemke, Raines and Filipczak (2013) who refer to the concept of leveraging employees of different generations with different backgrounds, learned skill sets, work and life experiences and professional and personal points of view to contribute to solutions rather than be the problems. It does not have to come to a point where one person has to win and another person has to lose (Stillman and Stillman, 2017).

According to Shaw (2013), there are five steps that can assist the four generations in the work place to work through their conflicting work ethics, different values and generational styles among other differences:

1. Acknowledge: Talk about the differences

2. Appreciate: Spend time on looking at the “why” rather than the “what” or “how”

3. Flex: Consider differentiation of approach to accommodate

4. Leverage: Build upon the great qualities each generation brings to workforce

5. Resolve: Ultimately decide which option is the best route to take

The four generations in the workplace are akin to that family reunion of mine noted earlier and differences arise from conversations. Are the differences among families or among generations because of those “crazy” family members, or can they be attributed to generational differences that may need the five-step intervention. In the end, differences among generations are to be expected, but generational problems can be prevented.

Another approach that can be applied to assist generations to work together is one that often is used among effective or “good” teachers. According to Meagan and Larry Johnson (2010), the following steps can be taken:

1. Start with a story or facts to capture the listeners attention

2. Engage the learner

3. Show rather than tell

4. Have them try while you watch

Teaching is one mode of leading and managing differences among members in the workplace, but there are others such as directing, persuading, collaborating and coordinating. At any given time, any one of these can be pulled out of the toolbox based on circumstances and the generational signposts. Shaw (2013) in his seminal work on generations captured the value of looking at opportunities rather than obstacles when he noted that leaders or generational members need to be aware of generational sticking points, and as such, team members, teachers and leaders can avoid needless tensions while working to have the generations focus on the value of their uniqueness their respective generations bring to their organization.

About the Author: Dr. Christopher Nagy is the Superintendent of Schools for the Burlington County Institute of Technology and Burlington Special Services School District


Birkman, R. (2016). How generational differences impact organizations & teams. Texas: Birkman International Inc.

Jenkins, R. (May 15, 2017). Why generational diversity is the ultimate competitive advantage. Inc. Magazine.

Johnson, M. and Johnson, L. (2010). Generations, inc.: From boomers to linksters-managing the friction between generations at work. New York: American Management Association.

Hughes, J.W. (March 16, 2017). New demographic normal. Presentation at 2017 NJ Future Redevelopment Forum.

Lipman, V. (January 25, 2017). How to manage generational differences in the workplace. Forbes Magazine.

Robey-Graham, A.K.(2008). Generational comparisons and contrasts chart. Retrieved from http://www.napavalley.edu/people/jhall/Documents/Generational%20Chart.pdf

Shaw, H. (2013). Sticking points: how to get 4 generations working together in the 12 places they come apart. Illinois:Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Stillman, D. and Stillman, J. (2017). Gen z @work: how the next generation is transforming the workplace. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Underwood, C. (2007). The generational imperative: understanding generational differences in the workplace, marketplace, and living room. Ohio: Generational Imperative, Inc.

Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2013). Generations at work: managing the clash of boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers in the workplace.2nd ed. New York: American Management Association.

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