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Leading Across the Generational Divide

June 29, 2009

An emerging issue in the workplace that is beginning to exert certain tensions, and which has significant leadership implications, is what I’ll call the ‘Generational Great Divide.’ I’m referring here to the four generations of which employees are now composed. Just last week, for example, a Toronto Globe & Mail columnist noted how this issue is rapidly gaining attention in the U.S., moreso than in Canada.

Baby Boomers in the U.S. (which compose a smaller share of the population compared to Canada) are losing their influence, while Gen Y (born after 1980) is attempting to place its mark on the workplace. Unfortunately this generation, which until recently was made to feel that it could walk on water, is getting nailed by the recession. Around half of MBA students, for example, are reportedly unable to find summer employment. The old adage ‘Last in, first out’ appears to be holding true.

Sandwiched in between is Gen X, which feels victimized by the recession and fed up with living in the shadow of Boomers. Their attitude is, ‘Would you people just move on and retire. Please!’

And then there is the Silent Generation (born between 1933 and 1945). Of significance is the need for increasing numbers of this latter generation to extend their work careers due to the stock market collapse, not to mention the oldest Boomers. Talk about a new tension in the workplace and a paradigm shift in perception.

How all of this plays out in the years ahead will be very interesting to watch through a leadership lense. Widely divergent value systems and mental models across these four generations will undoubtedly (in my view) cause increasingly big problems for organizations, whether public or private. It is one thing to ponder and debate what the internal organizational implications will be; it is quite another (as I put on my economist’s hat) to consider what the effects will be on Canada’s and America’s capacities to create learning organizations that fuel creativity and innovation – essential components of competitive economies. Our long-term standard of living is at stake.

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