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Tips offered on overcoming generation gap at work

If your co-worker's attitudes towards work, privacy or loyalty to the organization just rub you the wrong way, the discomfort may arise from a generational clash and not a personality conflict, according to Marilee Jones, dean of admissions, and Lorelle Espinosa, director of recruitment in the Office of Admissions.

"The Generation Gap at Work," a presentation and discussion led by Jones and Espinosa, explored an unprecedented feature of current American employment: the co-existence of four different generations of workers within the U.S. workforce and frequently, within small offices.

At their IAP session on Jan. 28, Jones and Espinosa provided a framework for understanding the gaps across generations and offered tips to manage these sometimes baffling and tense relationships smoothly.

They divided the workforce into "Matures," born between 1909 and 1945; "Boomers," born between 1946 and 1964; "Gen Xers," born between 1965 and 1978; and "Millenials," born from 1979 onward.

"The cohort in a similar age has similar values and characteristics; they have similar attitudes and expectations that are very different from other generations," said Jones, a self-identified Baby Boomer, who used charts and cartoons to show how the characteristics of each generational cohort contrasted with others. For example, she said, "Matures are the silent generation. They value sacrifice, commitment, and financial and social conservatism. They remember the Depression. They're the 'Establishment.'"

"Boomers value themselves. They're competitive, anti-authority. They grew up with Vietnam, Watergate, Woodstock. They have high expectations. They're diplomatic, loyal and want validation. And they value privacy.

"Gen Xers were the first latchkey kids. They're entrepreneurial, pragmatic, straightforward. They grew up with AIDS, MTV, PCs, divorce.

"The Millenials are neotraditionalists, optimistic and very community-centered. They're technologically adept and busy, busy. They grew up with the O.J. Simpson trial, Columbine and 9/11. They're versatile. They write blogs about their lives," said Jones.

"What this means to us is that co-workers may have fundamentally different approaches to work, teamwork, privacy, respect and authority. If you're a Boomer with Gen Xers working for you, humble yourself and ask them for help. Give them plenty of praise and training in new skills. Think of them as a whole generation of middle children--give them attention. Praise and reward their successes," recommended Jones.

As for working with Millenials, Jones said. "Here's one tip: remember that they are as far from Vietnam as we were from the Great Depression. Spare them the 'back in the day' stories."

Espinosa, a self-identified Gen Xer, offered tips for her cohort to working with Boomers.

"Try to understand them. Find a niche in your work where you can excel. Seek out mentors and get on your director's calendar. If you want to break the ice with a Boomer, ask them about their children," Espinosa said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2005 (download PDF).

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