Career Advice Feb 22 2012

How to Cross Age Barriers at Work

By kelly eggers

After the release of his first book in 1995, "Managing Generation X," Bruce Tulgan received an unexpected call. "Hi, I'm calling from Jack Welch's office at GE," a woman told Tulgan, then 28. "He's wondering if you would come brief some of his employees on your new book."

That call -- among many others -- led Tulgan and his business partner, Jeff Coombs, to believe they were on to something. The book was written using the narratives of Gen-Xers reflecting on their experiences at work and offering advice on how to manage them.

Many of the companies that called said they had conducted surveys of younger staff in an effort to learn how to hold on to them. But the results only confused the companies. The attitudes of young workers in the surveys weren't much different than those of older workers, but retention rates remained low.

"'Managing Generation X' struck a chord," Tulgan said. "People were like, 'You are exactly right!,' but the only reason it was exactly right is because we interviewed a ton of people. I wasn't just using a survey instrument, I was asking them open-ended questions."

The interviews and consulting sessions inspired Tulgan to write a number of books focusing on issues surrounding management of young talent. Now, as the population of Generation Y workers continues to grow, he's begun to hear the same questions and concerns about talent management and retention that he received back in the 90s.

The work force today is more intergenerational than ever, Tulgan says. For people of any age, crossing generational lines requires self-awareness and an understanding of others. FINS spoke with Tulgan about how managers and employees alike can bridge the generation gap.

Kelly Eggers: What makes the intergenerational workplace so challenging?

Bruce Tulgan: There are three things going on. First, there's a generational shift underway in the work force, where there is aging on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end a growing youth level. In the middle there is a gap. That creates a whole lot of issues. We call this the numbers problem.

The next set of issues is the breakdown in the old-fashioned seniority system. It used to be that there was a very easy way of sorting out age in the workplace -- the seniority system. Older, more experienced people were in charge, young people weren't. The problem is that the old-fashioned system depends on long-term, vesting rewards, and that system has totally fallen apart. On the employee side, no one expects the system to take care of them in the long term. People are more willing to shut up and do what they're told when they're young if they trust the system to take care of them in the long term.

The third part is that businesses are operating in an environment where the obsolescence curve has changed. Skills become obsolete more quickly -- these things diminish the advantages of age and experience.

These are all the macro factors, but there are also micro factors, which are the ones you hear the most about. "Oh, this generation is soft, they always got a trophy just for showing up. They don't think they need to have a lot of experience because they can answer any question at the touch of a button."

Add to this the perspective of older people who think, "Hey, when I started it was 'Keep your head down, your mouth shut, and pay your dues.'" Then, halfway through their careers, that may not be how it works anymore. Now they feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, and working alongside them are these young upstarts who are ready to cash out and renegotiate on an ongoing basis. It's threatening and unnerving, and they are outraged by it.

KE: Is the disparity and disdain between generations a new phenomenon?

BT: There is always a generation gap in the workplace. But because we are going through so many profound changes at a particularly uncertain time in history, these issues are more pronounced now, and they are more confusing now.

What's different now is the numbers problem, and the shift in the economy away from long-term hierarchical relationships. People are thinking more short-term and transactional. That means that these generational issues play out differently.

KE: What has changed to make things more transactional instead of long-term and hierarchical?

BT: Institutions are in a state of constant flux in order to survive. Change and uncertainty don't support long-term, hierarchical relationships, they lead to short-term ones and support transactional environments. That's what's changing in the workplace when it comes to these generations.

Companies are moving away from pensions, fixed raises and rewards, and moving toward pay-for-performance and forced ranking. These are short-term, transactional trends that are now playing out in corporate policy and compensation policy. It is a very real thing.

There is also a cultural aspect of it as well. Older workers have a "head down, shut up" mentality at work. Younger people believe that all working and management styles are equally valid, that feelings are important too, and that people need an individual learning plan.

KE: There's a lot of chatter about Gen-Y wanting constant feedback. Why do you think that is? Why does this create such a problem?

BT: Almost all savvy young people know that they're not all winners. They are aware of false measuring, so they want to know how they are really doing. But they have also grown up in an environment where everything can be measured more closely than we could have ever imagined. They know measurement is possible, and they want to know how to score points; they want to be told what's being measured, and they want you to tell them honestly. They're saying, "Don't pat me on the back and tell me I'm doing fine and then fire me at the end of the year."

Young people know that there is a lot of uncertainty and vulnerability for everyone in the economy right now, and in particular, a lot of vulnerability for new people who don't have a lot of skills and experience. They don't have confidence that if they keep their heads down and suck it up and show up working hard every day that they will be fine. They don't want to waste any time, and want to make sure they are going in the right direction. They want someone to tell them that.

KE: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions baby boomers, Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers have about each other?

BT: The biggest misconception older workers have of young people is that they want to be humored at work. I think most young people want to be taken seriously and set up for success. They don't want to waste time, and they don't want to be told they are doing well if they are not. A big misconception is that they want a trophy just for showing up. Really, they want to be told how they are doing honestly, and they want to get better and better. They want strong leadership.

There's also a misconception that young people only want interesting jobs, and that they don't want grunt work. What they really want to know is how much grunt work exactly do they have to do before they get more responsibilities and challenges. Young people also think older people have no respect for them. But really, older people are afraid of them.

The misconception about older people is that they have a lot of rules and procedures for which there are no good reasons. You should be very, very careful before you make that assumption. There are likely good reasons for standard operational procedures. For young people, step one should be to learn them, and step two should be deciding if you can improve upon them. But don't assume outright that there is no good reason for them. Assume that there is actually a good reason. Follow the path of learning it and mastering it their way, and then thinking about whether or not you can improve on it.

Write to Kelly Eggers at

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