by Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN
We would all agree that change in our world continues to escalate. Change impacts every aspect of our lives, including our work environments. One factor that complicates our response to change in the workplace is the number of generations represented by employees. Colleagues who grew up in different times often see the world through a different lens, which may lead to conflict. As multiple generations attempt to address challenges of change, different perceptions of the best way forward can complicate planning and decision-making.
Hillman (2014), in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, highlights the increased conflict between the numerous generations currently in the workforce—the Silent Generation born between 1922 and 1945, Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X (Gen-Xers) born between 1965 and 1980, and Millennials (occasionally known as Gen Ys), born 1981-1996. The Pew Research Center reports that as of 2017, the age distribution within the U.S. workforce was:
- Silent Generation-2%
- Baby Boomers-25%
- Generation X-33%
- Post-Millennials (Gen Z)-5%
The first four age groups, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials, make up the majority of nursing and health professions educators. Administrators, faculty, and staff in these programs include individuals in their seventies, sixties, fifties, forties and thirties as well as some in their twenties. These groups are also represented in the student population. Undergraduate students include not just traditional college age students (18-23 year olds) but also older students in their late twenties, thirties, forties and occasionally even older. Similarly, graduate students represent a wide range of age groups. Never before have so many generations worked together in health-related faculty groups. Unfortunately, these multiple generations may clash as they attempt to work together toward a common organizational goal.
Basis for Generational Conflict
Multigenerational work conflicts frequently result from a clash of work values based on employees’ membership within a generational cohort (Hillman, 2014). The differences in values may occur because of large environmental events occurring during the cohort’s childhood and adolescence that influence the way the cohort sees the world. For example, Baby Boomers who grew up during the transition from World War II to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the rise of the Women’s Rights movement, with all of the related social unrest, may bring the energy they had for social concerns into their individual work responsibilities. Similarly, Millennials grew up at the end of the cold war, but experienced the Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, and the Columbine School shooting. Having seen these tragedies, they tend to focus on areas of their lives beyond the work environment. The clash often occurs when the work-related values of the group in charge make up the evaluative standards within the work place. Those who hold other values are likely have negative feelings about the dominant values (Hillman, 2014).
Table A gives us an expanded overview of the differences in experiences among these groups that influenced the group’s characteristics and values.
Table A: Generational Events and Associated Characteristics and Values
The conflicts among generational groups are exacerbated by a lack of understanding of others’ perceptions. This lack of understanding often results in miscommunication among the groups. The miscommunication typically centers upon work-life balance, the use of technology, and expectations regarding interaction with superiors (Hillman, 2014; Moore, et al., 2017). The end result of these conflicts is work dissatisfaction, poor morale, and ultimately, missed opportunities to accomplish the goals of the organization. When these conflicts occur in educational settings such as nursing and health professions programs, students who may represent varying age groups observe and often learn negative group communication strategies demonstrated by the faculty and carry these maladaptive approaches into the practice arena.
Solutions to Miscommunication
Understanding the reasons for differences in values and resulting behaviors is key to improved communication among groups. Just listen to conversations in various faculty offices. Millennials may say, “Those old faculty never want to change!” or “How could those old faculty members be smart enough to get an advanced degree yet be so stupid about technology?” In contrast, in the next office, the Baby Boomer group may be saying, “Those Millennials are not committed to the work—they just want to whine and go home early.” Neither of these views seems to be particularly helpful (or kind) and do nothing to bridge the gap between groups. Recognizing the perspective that each group brings can eliminate these negative stereotypes and help us interact with others, regardless of our generational cohort. Once we understand the perceptions of others we can move on to more honest and productive communication.
Managing Change in a Multigenerational Group
The rapid changes in our environment require nursing and health professions faculty to respond by making changes in programs, curriculum or teaching-learning approaches. This pressure to respond to rapid change often escalates the conflict. The typical scenario in these circumstances is the younger faculty may propose an “out of the box” solution to a designated problem. The older faculty—or those with more experience—may be less excited about the new approach, saying, “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work!” This type of interaction sets up a conundrum, which leads nowhere.
Reframing each position may help move the group from conflict to progress. For example, innovative ideas are the life-blood of progress. However, more seasoned faculty may well have had previous experiences that can inform a more successful outcome. Reframing the advice can set the stage for acceptance. For example, instead of “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work!” a more appropriate approach might be, “We implemented a similar project, and although your idea has some differences, let me tell you about the negative consequences we experienced. This experience might help us avoid some unintended consequences.” This type of reframing opens up an opportunity to incorporate both perspectives to increase the likelihood of success.
Beware of Stereotypes
As helpful as an understanding of the impact of multigenerational work values can be in rapidly changing times, it is important to realize that the age cohort of which one is a part is only one factor influencing values. The family in which we are raised, the communities of which we are a part, the education we hold, and our ethnic, religious or spiritual beliefs all contribute to our values, including those associated with our work. We should not depend on stereotypes to understand our colleagues. Collaborating with others during times of change requires us to consider all these factors as we strive to address a challenge. We can only do this when we first really listen to those with whom we disagree, attempt to understand and honor their perspectives, and then move forward with kindness and respect to find a path forward.
Ferrell, L. (2017) Facilitating an Intergenerational Classroom. Greater Faculties: A Review of Teaching and Learning. Volume 1. Article 4. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=greaterfaculties. Accessed, November, 2019
Fry, R. (2018) Millennials are the largest generation in the workforce. Pew Research Center. April. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/. Accessed, November 2019
Hillman, D. (2014) Understanding Multigenerational Work-Value Conflict Resolution. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health. 29: 240-257. 240-257.
Karl, J., Pittman, T. (2017) Diverse Educational Strategies Enhance Multigenerational Learning in the Classroom &Workplace. https://sigma.nursingrepository.org/handle/10755/621568. Accessed, November, 2019.