Many of our professional relationships involve interactions among people from four different generations. As described by Lancaster and Stillman (2002), these generations are the traditionalists (born 1900–1945), the baby boomers (born 1946–1964), generation X (born 1965–1980), and the millennials (born 1981–1999). For example, a university department of communication sciences and disorders (CSD) might be chaired by a 42-year-old member of generation X; a 60-year-old baby boomer clinical educator might supervise a 23-year-old millennial graduate student who, in turn, may be treating a 70-year-old traditionalist. The CSD administrative office staff may include a 67-year-old traditionalist, a 55-year-old baby boomer, a 39-year-old member of generation X, and two work-study students, millennials in their early 20s. Misunderstandings, unspoken attitudes and assumptions, and conflict could easily arise from the generational and age differences in all these overlapping relationships, with the potential of creating uncomfortable situations.
According to The New Dictionary of Cultural Identity (Hirsch, Kett, & Trefil, 2002), "generation gap" refers to "the differences in customs, attitudes, and beliefs between any two generations, but especially between youths and adults" (p. 434). The term generation gap was created in the 1960s by baby boomers (Kersten, 2002), but generation gaps persist—and for some very solid reasons.
The disparities among generations are deeper and more complex than in the past and are related to the enormous world changes in the past 60 years (Kersten, 2002; Lancaster & Stillman, 2002; Raines, 2002, 2003). As Lancaster and Stillman (2002) point out, "for the first time in our history, we have four separate and distinct generations working shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face in a stressful, competitive workplace" (p.13). These four cohorts, each of which typically spans 15 to 20 years, represent groups of people who "have events, images, and experiences in common" (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000, p. 16) that "cut across racial, ethnic, and economic differences" (Zemke et al., 2000, p. 17).
The Four Generations: Who Are They?
Although empirical research validating generational differences has been scarce, studies (e.g., Arsenault, 2004; Ng, Schweitzer, & Lyons, 2010) confirm some of the generational differences and characteristics listed in Table 1 [PDF]. The table includes the demographic data as well as the people, places, events, and symbols that define each of the generational cohorts. Not every member of each generation fits the respective description; however, in looking at the defining events and symbols of each generation, the connection to the generation's prevalent traits becomes apparent.
For example, having lived through World War II and the Great Depression, many members of the traditionalist generation embrace patriotism, adhere to a military management style, and save their money. In contrast, the baby boomers, whose families prospered in a booming post-World War II economy, were labeled the "me generation." Many members of this generation, disillusioned by the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, and assassinations of prominent political figures, tend to question authority and government. Generation X also tends to question American institutions, was affected by the loss of the nuclear family and the high divorce rates during the 1970s, and tends to be more skeptical and resourceful. The youngest generation, the millennials, has had a multicultural upbringing and easy access to all forms of technology. They are described as techno-savvy, appreciative of diversity, and collaborative. Interestingly, these millennials also have been referred to as "echo boomers" (children of the baby boomers) to describe their large numbers and as "generation me" to reflect their self-focus and individualism.
More About the Millennials
Because today's CSD undergraduate and graduate students are mostly millennials, it's a good idea to be aware of and understand what makes this generation tick. Although their beliefs and values are not vastly different from those of previous generations (and many differences are attributable to mere age differences), hundreds of surveys over the last five years found two compelling factors that differentiate members of this cohort from the other three (Hershatter & Epstein, 2010; The Pew Research Center, 2007). The first is "their incorporation of technology as a 'sixth sense' and as a fully integrated means of interacting with the world" (Hershatter & Epstein, 2010, p. 211). According to Tapscott (2009) and Small and Vorgan (2008) as cited in Hersatter and Epstein (2010), these "digital natives" (as many millennials are frequently called) show "actual changes in neural circuitry that develop with the acquisition and repetition of technological skills" (p. 212).
Millennials' second unique characteristic is "their expectation of organizational accommodation, stemming from their prior experiences and the degree to which institutions have made themselves malleable to the needs and desires of this cohort" (Hershatter & Epstein, 2010, p. 211). As many scholars (Hershatter & Epstein, 2010; Howe & Strauss, 2000, 2007; Wilson & Gerber, 2008) have pointed out, the needs and desires of this generation have been met since their earliest years, primarily by baby boomer parents who were reacting to the perceived failures of home and school to protect the children of generation X from home-life instability and who wanted their children to "have a better life than any generation before them" (Carver & Candela, 2008, p. 986). As a probable consequence they have been described as "the largest, healthiest, and most cared-for generation in American history" (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 76). At the same time, because of all their parental nurturing, some millenials may need help in the interpersonal domain, learning to accept constructive criticism and manage conflict (Dolezalek, 2007, as cited in Shaw & Fairhurst, 2008).
Sources of Generational Misunderstandings
Aside from misunderstandings that stem solely from differences in age, Weston (2006) attributes generational misunderstandings to two significant changes in this country in the past 60 years. The first is a shift in the nature of work. In many organizations, the workplace hierarchy has been flattened so that all employees are involved in decision-making. No longer is the oldest generation always at the top and the youngest in entry-level positions. Employees are interacting more as peers and working together in teams. Secondly, the transformation from the industrial era to the Information Age has "flipped generational relationships" (Weston, 2006), so that members of the younger generations are no longer dependent on the older generations for their expertise. Now a young graduate student with easy computer access to information might know the latest cutting-edge research findings before his or her faculty advisor.
In the midst of these changes is the ever-present perception of each generation that its values and expectations are universal (Weston, 2006). Some members in each cohort may make unquestioned assumptions that everyone shares—or should share—their values. These assumptions can easily lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. For example, faculty who began their careers when success was achieved through long-time employment may assume that the same value is the key to success today. When their younger colleagues or former graduate students change jobs frequently, they may view this trend negatively and describe their colleagues as uncommitted and unreliable. Conversely, younger generation X or millennial colleagues may view their older peers as stuck in a rut or unwilling to take advantage of opportunities (Weston, 2006).
Different generational perceptions about work ethics can be another source of conflict. In a study of the nursing profession, younger generation X and millennial nurses, who strive for a balance between work and life, were less likely to agree to schedule changes or overtime demands than their baby boomer colleagues (Sherman, 2006). These same younger-generation nurses became frustrated with the older generations because of the older colleagues' resistance to and incompetence with technology.
In another study that focused on workplace stress among 413 nurses, baby boomers and members of generation X reported quite different issues with and perceptions of occupational stress (Santos & Cox, 2000). Overall, boomers perceived generation X as being uncommitted slackers who were arrogant and self-absorbed, but generation X did not convey negative perceptions of the boomers. In their own defense, members of generation X noted that, rather than being arrogant, they considered themselves self-reliant as they needed to be throughout their lives.
In their extensive review of the nursing literature on generational diversity, Carver and Candela (2008) conclude that it is "more helpful to focus on the positive aspects of each generational cohort and draw upon their strengths rather than judge them for having different values than oneself" (p. 988). Given this view of generational differences, the following suggestions may help improve communication in supervisory and administrative relationships:
- Increased knowledge and understanding of defining events and values of the generational cohorts of clients, students, colleagues, and administrative staff.
- Mentoring programs for new faculty and office staff that pair members of different generations.
- Appreciation of the strengths of each generation (e.g., the experience of the baby boomer generation or the technological expertise of many of the millennial students).
- Examination of one's own professional and work-setting relationships to determine miscommunications or assumptions being made on the basis of generational differences.
- Explicit discussions with colleagues and staff members about the generations represented in the work setting and the cohort characteristics that may or may not apply to each individual.
- Explicit discussions with student supervisees about generational characteristics that may lead to misunderstandings in relationships with clients and supervisors.
- Awareness of generational stereotyping and use of caution in assuming that members of the same generation display all aspects of the cohort's "collective personality."
- The use of "respect and carefronting as antidotes to generational conflict" (Kupperschmidt, 2006). ["Carefronting," coined by Augsburger in 1973 and adapted by Kupperschmidt in 1994 to nursing, means "caring enough about one's self and goals to confront in a caring, self-asserting, responsible manner" (Kupperschmidt, 2006)].
These suggestions might be shared in orientation meetings; in-service presentations for employees, departmental staff, and faculty; and practicum classes or team meetings with graduate clinicians. After the leader's introductory remarks, which would include the rationale for discussing the topic, participants could review information about the defining events of each generation and share the events that shaped their lives and the characteristics of the cohort that might be influencing their supervisory or administrative relationships. Two important aspects of any presentation on this topic are sources of misunderstanding and ways to improve communication across generations.
Another way to share this information and learn more about the research in this area would be to form a study group comprising clinical faculty or faculty and students together. The study group could then present its findings to a larger group within the work setting.
Scenarios and Solutions
Three scenarios involving generational differences in a CSD setting—and possible solutions—are explored in an online sidebar. The situations described, although hypothetical, illustrate the misunderstandings and miscommunications that may result from generational differences. The individuals involved may not realize that their reactions in these situations may stem from aspects of what Sherman (2006) calls the "collective personality" of each generational cohort. The solutions offered for each scenario focus on an understanding and appreciation of generational diversity.
Working Toward a Common Goal
Generational diversity is part of the broad context of a multicultural phenomenon across academic and clinical curricula in CSD. With an awareness and understanding of the research, as well as of the danger of generational stereotyping, administrators, academicians, and clinical educators can encourage students to view generational diversity within the broad spectrum of multiculturalism. Before instructors and professors teach students, however, it is important that each is aware of his or her own cultural identities and generational backgrounds so that all work together more effectively.
This article is based on a previously published article, "Generational differences: Do they make a difference in supervisory and administrative relationships?" [PDF] that appeared in Perspectives on Administration and Supervision (October 2007).