UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Talkin' ’bout my Generation


You’ve got an evening appointment and must leave work by 5:30. You’ve worked efficiently all day, but at 5:30, the project still isn’t done, and the client expects it. Do you stay, or do you go?

It might depend on your age. Ben Rosen, the Robert March and Mildred Borden Hanes Professor of Organizational Behavior, conducted focus groups for Ernst & Young, followed by a massive survey to understand generational differences in the workforce. The results revealed several viewpoints that differed depending on whether the respondent belonged to the baby boomer set (ages over 40 to 62), Generation X (28 to 40) or Generation Y (under 28). In mid-November, he discussed these points of friction at a conference in Palm Springs, Calif., sponsored in part by Ernst & Young, addressing more than a thousand CEOs of fast-growing companies.

“There are some areas where there is friction among the generations,” Rosen said. “That poses challenges for getting people to work together.”

The points of friction involve nothing short of how you live your life.

Gen Y thinks baby boomers are too consumed with work, and because Gen Y’s bosses and the bosses’ bosses are of that era, Gen Y fears that strong work ethic will skew Gen Y’s work-life balance. In the above situation, Gen X would resent staying late to finish up a project because Gen Y has other things on their calendar.

Gen Y views baby boomers as technological dinosaurs who don’t appreciate how easy it is to leverage technology to work more efficiently. Baby boomers believe Gen Y hides behind text messages and instant messaging to avoid difficult discussions face to face.

Gen Y wants more respect from the other generations. They have good insights and want to be heard. Gen X and baby boomers believe in paying your dues, and view Gen Y as having a sense of entitlement for expecting meaningful, challenging work from the start.

Gen X values autonomy and looks down on what they see as Gen Y’s need for more positive feedback.

Gen Y dresses more informally in professional settings than their older co-workers.

Gen Y believes work can be done wherever they can plug in a computer. Gen X and baby boomers understand that tacit learning opportunities are missed by not interacting directly with clients and senior people.

“If you have all these frictions, you have to work them out,” Rosen said. “You have to have mechanisms for people to sort out what is appropriate, what are the rules, what are reasonable expectations, in order for people of different generations to work together.”

Time and the current economic conditions may change the dynamics. Within the next few years, Gen Y will begin to dominate the workplace as baby boomers retire. Corporations will have to change their policies to attract and retain the Gen Y workforce they depend on. Yet if Gen Y refuses to devote as much time and energy to work as their predecessors, profit margins might go down and shareholders would have to accept lower dividends.

“There are issues that would have to be worked out,” Rosen said. “It might well be a societal shift.”

On the other hand, recessionary times will make it harder for Gen Y to move on to new jobs if the current ones lack the challenge they desire. They may have to adapt to Gen X’s view of paying your dues.

Rosen hopes to be able to turn some of his data into articles for academic or practitioner journals to further the understanding of generational differences. There is very little prior work on the topic.

Rosen, a baby boomer, said his work has given him a better understanding of Gen Y aspirations. And he notes that in every one of his focus groups, after the baby boomers were done complaining about Gen Y, it dawns on someone that “these are our children,” he said. “We, as helicopter parents, have hovered over our kids, guiding them and structuring their lives. We may not like it, but we’ve created them ourselves.”