Young vs. Old: Bridging the generation gap at work

By Candace Moody

Almost every company has a rulebook— a set of policies and procedures that help theFull body isolated portrait of young business man company keep employees’ behavior between the lines. HR managers generally agree that workers need direction on how to dress and how to behave. They also agree that how happily your employees comply with your policies may be a function of when they were born.

For the first time in history, as many as four generations may work side by side in the workplace, thanks to longer life spans and retirement plans that have been delayed by the economic downtown. Those four generations are the “matures,” the “baby boomers,” “generation X,” and the “millennials.”

Born between 1930 and 1945, the matures comprise a small part of the current workforce (less than 10%). Although small in numbers, they bring a strong, traditional work ethic and depression-era values to the workplace. At 64, the youngest members of this generation still feel that they have several productive years of work ahead of them. They may also be owners or founders of the companies they work in, making their personal values one of the most influential factors in the business.

At 73 million strong in the United States, baby boomers have been a dominant generation since they were born—between 1946 and 1964. They currently comprise about 44% of the workforce. Next in line are the gen Xers (generation X). Born between 1965 and 1980, these workers are the independent “latchkey” kids, sandwiched between two enormous cohorts. Numbering just 46 million and 29% of the workforce, generation X is dwarfed by the boomers and the millennials.

This last group was born after 1980 and started coming of age in 2000. They number around 80 million and currently make up 15% of the workforce. Their numbers will grow as they continue to graduate and go to work, however.

This unprecedented combination of generations in the workplace creates a new diversity dynamic, and may make developing policy a real challenge. Each of the generations responds to rules and constraints differently, and each responds to different incentives and rewards.

Generation issues

anna brosche.smallAnna Lopez Brosche, CPA, runs operations at Ennis Pellum & Associates, a public accounting firm located on Jacksonville’s south side. Its workforce of 35 is well-balanced by age; workers range from 24 to 60 years old, with the founder and partners at the older end of the spectrum. Brosche attributes the balance to a policy of recruiting young talent from college and providing a supportive work environment for long retention of young workers.

Brosche is 37, but says she embraces traditional values and identifies more with baby boomers, partly due to her immigrant family upbringing. “As a family, we believe strongly that whatever you have, you earned through hard work,” she says.

Part of Ennis Pellum’s approach to a supportive work environment is a commitment to more flexible schedules. Unlike many accounting firms, Ennis Pellum does not enforce mandatory weekend hours during tax season. Employees who can get work done from home are permitted to do so. Brosche says that the real challenge with flexible hours is not results, but expectations: Baby boomers are proud of thriving under long hours and brutal deadlines. “And for baby boomers, ‘working’ means being at the office,” she says. “That’s not always the case with our younger workers. We’ve had some miscommunication because the boomers don’t think they should have to explain terms or be very specific about deadlines. I sometimes have to translate and mediate to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Tina Wirth

Tina Wirth

Tina Wirth, director of education at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, at 38, is typical of the generation X in her attitude toward policies in general. “Whenever I see a new policy come out, my first instinct is to be skeptical,” she says. “I look at policies to see if they make sense to me—if I can figure out why it’s needed. If I can’t see the point, compliance is much harder for me.”

Policies that promote a healthy work-life balance hold a real attraction for Wirth and many of her generation. She once worked for a company that insisted on a 7:30 a.m. report time, even if you’d worked until 10:00 the night before. “I hated that I had to ask permission— and take vacation time— to come in an hour later the next day,” she said.

Despite that experience, Wirth says she still struggles with the whole “face time” issue at work; she, like many X-ers, believes that you should be judged at work by the results you produce, and not how much time you spend at the office. “But even if I’ve already put in a 40-hour week, I feel weird about leaving the office early on Friday afternoon. I’d hate to be considered a slacker.”

Jayne Jett

Jayne Jett

Jayne Jett directs HR for Parc Management, a Jacksonville-based company that manages 25 theme parks and attractions throughout the United States. During the summer peak season, the company employs up to 8,000 workers, and Jett estimates that 70% of the seasonal workers are under 25.

Jett says that she has no trouble creating and implementing policies for workers that are for the most part, just beginning their careers. But, she emphasizes why those policies are needed.

“These workers need a ‘why’ to go with the ‘what’,” she says. “They consider providing a reason a sign of respect.” Jett says that she doesn’t have trouble with providing the ‘why’ on most of the company policies. “We’re focused on safety. We limit access to texting and phones because our workers are dealing with large and dangerous machinery [roller coasters and rides] and need to be alert.

“Our dress code, which prohibits things like large dangling earrings, is mostly about safety around equipment. We do prohibit out-of mainstream body art like tattoos on the face or offensive messages because our customer base is very mainstream. Our workers understand that.”

Jett says that she manages to promote attendance and punctuality by emphasizing to workers that when they are late, they are letting their team members down by not showing up.

Gary Desjardins

Gary Desjardins

Gary Desjardins, 46, runs The Little Gym in Jacksonville, one of two franchised locations in Northeast Florida. The company runs programs for children from four months to 12 years old, helping them build physical and cognitive skills through activities including martial arts and gymnastics.

Desjardins manages 10 employees ages 18–29, and finds that his young workers share his strong work ethic. He says that his 20-something workers are very confident  and want plenty of autonomy; “But if you can manage that, they do a great job for you.” Desjardins does admit to more challenges with his youngest workers— those 18–22 years old. “They’re connected all the time to a vast network of online friends—they’re constantly reaching for those cell phones,” he says. He invests extra time in team-building exercises, because these very young workers seem to need help in bonding with their co-workers—“relating face-to-face,” as he puts it. He manages around that, too. “When I have something really important to say as the boss, I text it.”

Candace Moody is a contributing editor to Jacksonville Advantage. She can be contacted at


What works for each generation?

• Matures. They want to be valued for their loyal and reliable service. Compliant with rules and regulations, they prefer face-to-face communication and consistent application of rules. They also want to be recognized for their experience and commitment to quality work rather than speedy results.

• Baby boomers. These employees work well with systems and processes, and they thrive on pay for performance incentives and achievement-based promotions. They value face time with the boss and care about perceived status symbols, such as titles and corner offices. Many are discovering the value of flexible schedules as they seek to extend their careers and still make time for leisure activities.

• Generation X: This generation values work–life balance as well as autonomy. They want to be treated like entrepreneurs within the company. Bosses get the best results from them by recognizing the results they achieve rather than the hours logged or seniority. This group of workers wants access to the latest technology and to be able to set their own goals.

• Millennials. The youngest generation of workers needs to feel connected to friends via technology, so smart bosses limit social networking only when absolutely necessary. This confident generation multi-tasks better than any previous cohort, but they want to know the reasons behind every policy and decision. They also want to take an active part in making important decisions. Policies need to provide specific guidelines for attendance and other constraints on behavior, since millennials are used to structure and appreciate knowing the rules.

Leave a Reply