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Employee relations: Generational differences in the workplace


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I recently read an article regarding a study about workplace expectations among the generations. The study suggests there are significant generational differences that exist in the workplace that impact workplace culture and employee relations.

In order to understand the findings, it’s first important to understand characteristics of workers belonging to the different generations, specifically: Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y; and what motivates them in their work. Various sources confirm there are certain qualities associated with each generation:

  • The “Baby Boomers” (born between 1946 and 1964) tend to make work a central part of their lives. As work-oriented individuals, baby boomers are more willing to work overtime. They are less eager to work slowly, unsupervised or take a lot of vacation. This may be due to the fact that their parents, part of the World War II generation, raised their children to appreciate the value of hard work. Not seeking work-life balance, baby boomers are primarily motivated by knowing they are valued workers. They derive personal fulfillment from work, and enjoy having meetings.


  • On the other hand, “Generation X”, “Gen X” or “Xers” (born between 1965 and 1981) tend to want jobs that come with high status, money and prestige. Though they are not as work-oriented as the baby boomers, they also value hard work. This generation places more value on balancing work with leisure. This may be due to the fact that this generation grew up with new freedoms created by social movements, and incorporated individualism into their lives. Since this generation grew up watching their parents turn into workaholics and then become downsized/restructured out of their chosen careers, this generation tends to be skeptical and does not expect job security; work is viewed as a contract. While at work, this generation is motivated by being valued as an individual, having relationships nurtured, receiving challenging work, being given the freedom to manage time and work, and receiving feedback and recognition.


  • Then there is “Generation Y”, the “Millennials” or “Generation Me” (born between 1982 and 1999). Members of this generation tend to want more vacation and want to be able to work slowly compared to those belonging to the other generations. Although they desire money and status even more than the baby boomers, they value work and results less and are less willing to work overtime. In comparison to other generations, individuals belonging to this generation are more likely to say that work is nothing more than a way to earn a living. This may be due to the fact that they grew up sheltered, pampered, nurtured and “special”. These confident individuals are not afraid to question authority and speak their minds. Their parents were less likely to discipline them, correct their mistakes or share with them the harsh realities of life. While at work, this generation is motivated most by being able to work with creative people. This is the most open-minded the least prejudiced of the generations.

It’s easy to see how generational differences could affect the workplace in terms of the culture, recruiting strategies, the way in which teams are built, dealing with change, motivating/managing employees, and maintaining/increasing productivity.

As mentioned above, the study on workplace expectations revealed that generation gaps could lead to clashes in the workplace. It examined about 16,507 high school graduates from 1976, 1991 and 2006, and found boomers and Xers in a company may find it frustrating that new generation Me employees expect more vacation without paying their dues; time to chat online or visit social networking websites at work; praise for showing up to work on time; work-life balance without any sacrifice; and more money and prestige with less work. It concluded that unrealistic expectations could also lead to disappointment among the generation Me employees, especially in today’s challenging and competitive employment climate.

I’m wondering: do you believe that generation Y is changing the face of your work environment? Has your organization experienced baby boomer-generation Y conflicts, or conflicts between older employees (baby boomers, generation Xers) versus newer employees (generation Yers)? If so, how is your organization working to ensure that the workplace retains a unified work culture?

The full study, Generational Differences in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing, is available at the Journal of Management.

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Assistant Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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2 thoughts on “Employee relations: Generational differences in the workplace
  • That is an interesting point regarding the rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009…thanks for pointing it out.

  • TDF100 says:

    Interesting post, Christina, but it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten lots of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. And most analysts now see generations as getting shorter (usually 10-15 years now), partly because of the acceleration of culture. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978
    Generation Y/Millennials: 1979-1993

    Here are some good links about GenJones I found: