Bridging Office Generation Gaps

Roxana Torrico MeruviaNASW’s Roxana Torrico Meruvia explains how generational differences play out in today’s workplace.

The landscape of today’s workplace is changing. For the first time, four generations are working side by side, said Roxana Torrico Meruvia, senior practice associate for the NASW Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice. Labor shortages, the rising age of retirement and the challenging economy are just some of the reasons for the mix of generations at work.

The center is examining this historic change in workforce demographics to promote a more cohesive workplace, especially relating to social work settings.

In December, the center hosted a brownbag discussion among employees at NASW’s national office in Washington. The event complemented the recent NASW Lunchtime webinar, “They Just Don’t Get It ... Navigating the new Multigenerational Workplace,” and a new Center for Workforce Studies report, “Child Welfare Social Workers’ Attitudes Toward Mobile Technology Tools: Is there a Generation Gap?”

According to the Lunchtime webinar, the different generations are typically divided among:

  • Traditionalists, born before 1945;
  • Baby boomers, born between 1946-1964;
  • Generation X, born between 1965-1980; and
  • Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1995.

Among the changes facing the new workforce, Torrico Meruvia noted, are older generations being supervised by a younger age group and older and younger workers competing for the same jobs. Many employers are experiencing intergenerational conflict in the workplace, she added.

Cultural clashes can arise through something as simple as office communication. Few people take the time to realize each generation has its own preferred style of communicating with coworkers, said Tracy Whitaker, director of the NASW Center for Workforce Studies. She noted that one generation may favor the telephone. “For others, e-mail is the preferred route and still others choose to talk in person whenever possible,” she said.

Acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the workplace can also become a sore spot, Whitaker noted.

“Someone might think, ‘It never crossed my mind that what I did wasn’t appropriate,’” Whitaker said. “There are even different attitudes of why we work.”

During the brownbag discussion, Whitaker asked staff to identify themselves by remembering common frames of references, such as advertising jingles and questions such as, “Did you have a cell phone in high school?”

Torrico Meruvia, a member of Generation X, pointed out how traditionalists tend to dress up more. “My grandfather rarely wore jeans. He was always dressed up,” she said. “Traditionalists also think work is a privilege. They also prefer fact-to-face interaction.”

Traditionalists represent 12.5 million people (8 percent) of the U.S. workforce.

Torrico Meruvia went on to explain that the baby boom generation is well known for its pivotal role in the advancement of civil and women’s rights. “They tend to be high achievers,” said Torrico Meruvia. “They want change and their voices heard. They are generally known to live to work and their preferred method of interaction is the telephone.”

The baby boomers comprise 66 million workers, or 44 percent of today’s workforce.

Generation X represents a decline in the national birth rate. Members of this group tend to be cynical and self-reliant “We prefer a work/life balance,” said Torrico Meruvia. “We work and play. We are generally not impressed by authority.” This generation, which represents about 33 percent of the workforce, also feels ignored in comparison to the overwhelming attention that is often devoted to the large baby boomer population.

The youngest population in today’s workforce, Generation Y, includes people who are highly educated and technologically savvy. In fact, technology has typically been an integral part of their lives from the earliest stages of development. They are known for their skills in multitasking and assertiveness. They represent approximately 15 percent of the workforce.

Members of NASW’s national office staffMembers of NASW’s national office staff, who span the generations, participate in an exercise to see what they have in common during a brownbag discussion about the challenges of a multigenerational workforce.

At the brownbag event, participants broke into small groups and each group was asked to discuss their similarities and differences by generation.

Ebony Jackson, Web designer at the association, said the discussion made her realize how important it is for different generations to focus on what they have in common rather than their dissimilarities.

Matthew Malamud, NASW News staff writer and production assistant, said as a member of Generation Y, he has no concept of what life was like before the era of civil and women’s rights. “We grew up assuming we would one day have an African-American or woman president,” he said.

Jennifer Watt, assistant director for the NASW Foundation, said she learned that perspectives of appropriate behavior in society can change radically within one or two generations.

“The thought of women working is one example,” Watt said. “Today, it is perfectly acceptable (behavior).”

The Lunchtime series webinar titled “They Just Don’t Get It ... Navigating the new Multigenerational Workplace,” was hosted by Torrico Meruvia and Whitaker. Their presentation pointed out that being respectful and responsive to generational differences is critical in creating a productive work environment.

Torrico Meruvia warned that unaddressed issues that relate to generation gaps can lead to employee dissatisfaction and stress.

“An engaged staff is more likely to deliver better services that can affect an organization’s public perception,” she said.