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Age or Generational Issues?

Our Changing Workforce

As the U.S. population ages, the workforce is aging as well.  The trend toward increasing numbers of older workers will continue for two reasons:

  • A number of companies are interested in holding on to the talent of their more experienced employees, and
  • Many employees are not in good positions to retire.

Thus the average age of retirement is becoming increasingly older, and workplaces today may include employees of four generations:

  • “Mature” or pre-retirement generation
  • Baby Boom generation
  • Generation X (30s – 40s)
  • Generation Y  (20s – 30s)

Employees in different generations may differ on their

  • loyalty to employers,
  • training or professional development needs,
  • attitudes towards work, authority, and supervision,
  • attitudes about employed mothers and work-family balance,
  • reliance on technology and social media forms of communication, and
  • the specific types of workplace flexibility they need.

Age Diversity and Workplace Challenges

This great age diversity can produce a number of potential workplace challenges.

  • Older employees may need more time to adjust to recent technology changes than younger workers.
  • When working with older workers, younger workers do not feel valued or that their input is respected because of their age. Some younger workers may feel they are treated like a student or even a son or daughter by their older co-workers.  They may resent the greater authority that their older co-workers enjoy.
  • Workers conflict on their ideas of when work should be completed. For example, while one strongly believes that everyone should work 9-to-5, the other desires a more flexible schedule.
  • Supervisors who give feedback in the same manner to all employees might find that members of each generation respond differently, viewing it as either helpful or insulting.

In addition to these generational divides, older employees may be subject to age discrimination and they, as well as coworkers, may question their ability to do their job well.  Younger workers may feel “shut out” of supervisory duties due to older workers staying in their positions rather than retiring.

When It Happens to You

Research finds that despite the potential for conflict, generational conflict in the workplace is not widespread.  However, when it happens to you, what might you do about it?

  1. Talk to your supervisor honestly and straightforwardly.  Respect the reality that older workers might feel threatened and displaced or that younger workers might feel devalued and underutilized.
  2. Appreciate the contributions that you make to your job, and that your older or younger co-worker is making to his/her job.
  3. Look for ways that each job might be reorganized to better take advantage of each generation’s strengths, so that together, unit goals are better achieved.
  4. Understand that work-life balance issues are real and very different for each generation.  Some of the conflict between the generations may be due to the different life issues each generation is facing off the job.  With recognition that all employees have work-life issues and that the particular set of issues changes over the life course, perhaps some greater understanding and potential for cooperation might emerge.

Copyright © 2014 University of Rhode Island.

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