How Can Values Overcome the Generational Crisis?

 “That which seems the height of absurdity for one generation, often becomes the height of wisdom in another” – Adlai Stevenson

A generational crisis is facing many industries in the next two decades,[i] as about 60% of the workforce, Baby Boomers, is set to retire.  Industry leaders know they have to prepare for the eventual turnover in generations to ensure the future of its intellectual capital. In certain large corporations, more and more young faces are integrated every week.

We celebrate their first day at work with a large reception and a group picture, flashed across plasma screens throughout all worksites. While this important recognition is admirable and makes the new hires “feel good”, many Boomers consider it just style over substance: Just another touchy-feely HR exercise in insignificant improvement in conducting business and solidifying the future. The question is always, “are these young people going to add value? And how will they add value?”

While company leaders plan for the future, integrating generations may not always work out as the HR department or the recruiters planned.  Leadership has to address the inevitable tensions arising due to conflicting levels of experiences, values, expectations, work habits, and communication styles, as well as perceived favoritism or even nepotism. While the business places a great focus on the younger generation, are the needs of the older generation sufficiently considered?

As a Boomer encountering GenXers or Millennials in a work setting, I used to dread the experience. I immediately reacted in one of three ways:  I thought, “How bad a slacker is he/she? Who actually does his/ her work?” Or, if luck prevails, he/she is the son or daughter of another employee and will he or she perform well as a matter of family pride and tradition, so as not to embarrass the parent.

Tensions definitely arise when relatively mildly talented younger individuals, take advantage of this unique situation: lots of Boomers clearly looking to retire, lots of future empty slots. Sometimes we Boomers wonder, “Do you really think you can take our place? What have you proven you can do?”

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) study, “Ten Principals for Working Across Generations” offers solutions that speak to reconciliation of generational conflict. According to CCL, when common cross-generational values and behaviors are applied, it’s easier to look past stereotypes and labels.  In their seven-year study, CCL found that these ten principals hold true across all generations. As found in the study, shared generational values are: Family, integrity, achievement, love, competence, happiness, self-respect, wisdom, balance and responsibility.

Moreover, when properly applied, CCL’S 10 Principles and shared values can remind a business to keep its moral compass by appointing leadership across multiple generations to mitigate these inevitable inter-generational conflicts. However, unless top leadership has clearly defined the principles and values to all generations, a pathway to discord is paved.

[i]  Burnett, Richard. ”Wanted: Next Generation of defense, space engineers”. All Business ,August 21, 2008, Accesssed Sept 19, 2009

Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.