The Generation Gap Challenges IT Managers

By Deborah Perelman  |  Posted 10-19-2007

The Generation Gap Challenges IT Managers

The generation gap has always made its presence felt at the office. The old guard inching toward retirement mixes with the "new kids" fresh out of college and several subsets in between, each walking in with their own sets of beliefs, priorities and approaches to work.

But a confluence of factors, most notably an aging work force and the arrival on the scene of Generation Y, have made that gap seem wider and deeper today than ever before and it is in the IT departments of the enterprise—which are left dealing with the user habits and adoption rates of the rest of the payroll—where the generation gap is often most pronounced. "IT is an industry that has just reached a point where it is old enough to have intergenerational conflicts. The industry itself it just 40 years old," Forrester principal Phil Murphy says.

Making the mix work means changing a workplace's culture: a prolonged process, but a necessary one. Shifts are needed in perceptions of both older and younger workers are perceived (such as that Baby Boomers don't want to learn new technologies) and it is essential to keep in mind that there is more to an IT population than those nearest to retirement and those newest to the organization, even if they are the most noticeable groups.

Times they are a

-changin'">

Times they are a-changin'

The gap is widening, with more workers stacked at both ends of the age spectrum. There are approximately 80 million Baby Boomers, those born roughly between the years of 1946 and 1964, and 70 million in Generation Y, born 1978 through the present, but only 60 million in the middle in Generation X, those born 1965 to 1977.

That creates a cultural divide, as workers of different ages will generally hold different views of technology use and adoption.

While Baby Boomers are known to have a preference for face-to-face communication, Generation X workers are more adept with Web- and e-mail-based communication, and Generation Y workers prefer the sharp, no-frills IM approach to communicating, barely using the phone or e-mail except when required.

The oldest generation also has a preference for on-site work while the middle generation values independence more, as well as work/life balance; the youngest group strongly values work/life balance, and often prefers to work remotely and on teams.

Baby Boomers are also best-known for staying with a single employer for a long period of time and working their way to the top, while those in Generation X are more willing to challenge authority and leave a job that does not satisfy them. Members of Generation Y have almost no expectation of having the same career for life, and are most likely to expect their employers to change to accommodate them and not vice versa.

"Younger people get frustrated by the way things are done, yet their managers are most often in that older category," says Lily Mok, research director in Gartner's Executive Programs research organization. "How you make your needs known and work with these more experienced employees is a big concern."

But others warn about overgeneralizing about generational differences. "Not all Baby Boomers are hardworking go-getters and not all the young folks are lazy or ambitious. I just don't buy it. I have seen multiple examples to the contrary," Murphy says. "But, like all stereotypes, there's a grain of truth as well. The folks that are Boomers now grew up before DVDs and MP3s and CDs. So despite that caveat, there are undeniable differences in their experiences with technology."

Navigating the Gap

Navigating the Gap

Managing the generation gap requires education and diversity programs to change workplace culture as we know it. It also takes a change in approach. "Employers should change their mindset from expecting an employee to adjust to their workplace design, rather than adapting to their expectations," Mok says. "They should be considering how they can match each other's needs."

Employers look to employees for guidance, as much to keep older workers from retiring as to lure younger recruits, two groups that both desire greater autonomy than they have in the past.