Cease Fire at the Generation Gap

When I was a PMF in 1998, I attended a week-long training in Shepardsville, W.V. along with a number of other PMFs. At that same facility, there was a group of mid-career federal employees who were also receiving training. Neither group interacted with each other except for a couple of incidents where the mid-career group
trashed the PMFs’ training room and some PMFs reciprocated by trashing their training room.

I believe that these incidents and the general friction between the groups were brought about by a training consultant who had an argument with a fellow PMF about our “generation’s” attitude. Most of our class was younger (Generation X) but we also had several Boomers with us. But I don’t think that was the real issue. What seemed to be the concern of the mid-career federal employees was that they were being cast aside in favor of
the new generation of government leaders as represented by the PMFs. At least this was continually expressed by the training consultant.

This was unfortunate because imagine how much each group could have learned from each other. And I fear the same situation is being replayed today with the new focus on Generation Y and how to manage a multigenerational workforce. There is an army of consultants and numerous books that perpetuate stereotypes that divide the generations. Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y are summed up in a grocery list of broad characteristics. Boomers respect authority while Generation Y is rebellious. Boomers climb the ladder while Generation Y wants the corner office now. I remember when Generation X used to be the rebels and played by their own rules but the consultants now say Generation X relies on process and likes the status quo.

Frankly, these conclusions have as much validity as if we were encouraged to manage the workforce by astrological signs. When interviewed by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans agree that they perceive a generation gap. But when each generation is questioned about their values, the generation gap seems to disappear. “People from different generations are largely alike in what they think, believe, and want from their work life,” writes Jennifer Deal in Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and
Old Can Find Common Ground

From her research, Deal found that the generations have similar values such as family, success, and contributing to the world. The generations want respect and they want leaders who are trustworthy and credible.
And the most common finding between the generations is their desire to learn and to be mentored. The generations just express themselves differently and that leads to perception of a gap.

Given these findings, it would seem that we would have better workplaces if we concentrated on the similarities between the generations. We should do everything we can (especially as managers) to make all employees feel that their contributions are valued no matter if they just started that day or have served the agency for years.

GovLoop is a great example of how the different generations can come together to learn from each other. And as the different profiles attest, there are no typical Boomers,Generation X, or Generation Y members. In fact there are so many variations from the specific generational norms that one questions if there are reliable generational norms. Every day the Govloop community demonstrates that open communication and shared sense of
purpose is more than enough to cross the generation gap. Why not do the same in our federal workplaces?

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Henry Brown

Thank you!

Would add that in some cases that I have seen, people will often use the generation differences for an EXCUSE for not communicating and or poor leadership when in reality the problem is in fact poor communication/leadership skills, and in really bad cases the offending parties are just being lazy

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Perry – I was thinking about Space Cowboys when I was writing this. And there is some research to back the “old age and treachery” comment. 😉

@Harlan – It’s amazing how we are shaped by events from even over a thousand years ago. It’s also interesting how each generation rediscovers the same trends in music and clothing. This is a healthy process because innovation happens when we remix previous solutions into novel configurations. The most creativity occurs at the boundaries so I hope that the meshing of generations will lead to better solutions than building walls between the generations.

Peter Sperry

The total insanity of most generational analysis/conflict is demonstrated by simply cheking the various definitions on Wikipedia (see list below). In almost every generation, the very early members could be [were?] parents of the very last members. Overpaid marketing consultants can talk about the commanalities of the boomers all they want but there are major differences between someone born in 1946, 1957 (myself) and 1964. Having missed the draft by 7 days, I am personally greatful for some of those differences. And generation X supposedly runs from 61 to 81? So individuals who never saw a computer until they graduated from college relate to technology the same way as those who never knew life without one? Generation Y supposedly runs from 82 to 2000, again putting at least some parents and children in the same group.

It is all rather silly after awhile but it can still be great fun to twit the youngsters.

The Population Reference Bureau has published the “20th Century U.S. Generations”.[7] The publication uses population and census data to define generations. It includes impacts of cultural values on generations. The following is a list of widely accepted cultural generations, sorted by region:

The Lost Generation, primarily known as the Generation of 1914 in Europe,[8] is a term originating with Gertrude Stein to describe those who fought in World War I.

The Greatest Generation, also known as the G.I. Generation, is the generation that includes the veterans who fought in World War II. They were born from around 1901 to 1924, coming of age during the Great Depression. Journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed this the Greatest Generation in a book of the same name.[9]

The Silent Generation born 1925 to 1945, is the generation that includes those who were too young to join the service during World War II. Many had fathers who served in World War I. Generally recognized as the children of the Great Depression, this event during their formative years had a profound impact on them.

The Baby Boom Generation is the generation that was born following World War II, about 1946 up to approximately 1964, a time that was marked by an increase in birth rates.[citation needed] The baby boom has been described variously as a “shockwave”[10] and as “the pig in the python.”[11] By the sheer force of its numbers, the boomers were a demographic bulge which remodeled society as it passed through it. In general, baby boomers are associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values; however, many commentators have disputed the extent of that rejection, noting the widespread continuity of values with older and younger generations. In Europe and North America boomers are widely associated with privilege, as many grew up in a time of affluence.[10] One of the features of Boomers was that they tended to think of themselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before them. In the 1960s, as the relatively large numbers of young people became teenagers and young adults, they, and those around them, created a very specific rhetoric around their cohort, and the change they were bringing about.[12]

Generation X is the generation generally defined as those born after the baby boom ended, and hence sometimes referred to as Baby Busters[13], with earliest birth dates seen used by researchers ranging from 1961 to the latest 1981 at its greatest extent. [14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23]

Generation Y is also known as Generation Next, Millennials, or Echo Boomers.[24] The earliest suggested birth dates ranging from mid to late 1970s to the latest in the early 2000s.[15][16][17][18][19][25][26][27][28][29][30][31] Today, many follow William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theories in defining the Millennials. They use the start year as 1982, and end years around the turn of the millennium.[32][33]

The following generation, referred to as Generation Z, Generation I (Internet Generation),[34][35] Digital Natives, Gen. Tech,[citation needed] the internet generation,[36] and various other names, was born between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s.[37][38]

Stephen Peteritas

Nice post Bill, and as a Gen Y’er I get equally as frustrated at Boomers, X’er and Y’er. So there’s really not a generational gap for me but rather a personality gap. I really not sure whether one is better than the other though.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Stephen – I would rather it be a personality gap than a generation gap. Clash of personalities is common in the workplace and is more honest than just stereotyping an entire group of people. That is what I think was the problem with the training consultant. She had a personality clash with my fellow PMF and went for the cheap shot of blaming their disagreement on their age difference rather than actually confronting the real issue.

This is why I find a lot of generation gap training as bad for managers. It gives them a pat response to workplace conflicts and thus the manager is not encouraged to examine what is causing the conflict and doing something to build trust and good working relationships.


Thanks for this post! I was recently at a social media conference with several people that were older than myself. We were talking about this issue largely being a fabrication of marketers, yet I kept hearing, “Yes, but have you actually tried to hire one of them?” That kind of generalization feels so isolating and does nothing to close the “gap.” Especially being “one of them.”

Kathleen Smith

Great post. I have seen it both ways – clashing and collaborating. While there has been lots of clashing and gnashing of teeth about the “gap” at least there is some discussion going on and understanding mining into how the differences can be overcome. I think the government community is a classic example of how both “sides” can gain from each other but need to overcome the fear, embarrassment and ego attached to “our” way of thinking versus “their” way of thinking.

I think Chris Dorobek addressed this nicely at the Next Gen Government Summit

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

As a Gen X’er, I found the statement “I remember when Generation X used to be the rebels and played by their own rules but the consultants now say Generation X relies on process and likes the status quo” to be interesting! I’m not sure how long that an employee can carry off the “rebel” persona in a government / business environment; it is charming (expected?) for a 20 something to challenge the rules, but if you are still trying to be James Dean into your 30s and 40s, there might be some maturity issues at play!

The most rebellious generation ever, the tie-dyed war-protesting Baby Boomer hippies, seamlessly transformed into cube dwellers and soccer moms shortly after Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin died and the haze of smoke dissipated! Transitioning into a more stable existence is a human condition, not a generational one.

Peter Sperry

Given the rather broad time bands assigned to these various generations by demographers, I am curious. Are there any GovLoopers out there with parents/children who are part of the same “generation” (1945 boomers with children born in 64) or (61Xers with kids born in 81). Also, how many Loopers fall between generations (born 61-64 or 78-82 etc)? How do you view all this generational nonsense?


Great post.

I think this blog also taps into an issue that is less about generations and more about dealing with top performers.

I’m guessing most big companies have this problem.
-There is some sort of fast-track program for people right out of college or with MBAs or seen as special. These people in programs are seen as future of company by leadership, giving lots of rotations, etc.

-People not in these fast-track programs or who have been around for awhile….kind of resent these people and programs. Part of this is these fast-track kids are kind of arrogant often. Part of it is they’ve been waiting around and part of company for awhile and the fast-trackers get more opportunities.

For those in private industry, have you seen the same? I imagine GE and Lockheed and large companies have the same programs and issues. I know Teach for America has faced this issue – new, energetic, inexperienced teachers without training but passion VS trained, experienced teachers that may or may not have less passion/energy

And is there naturally a tension? Anyway to bring people together?

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@GovLoop – This goes back to Deal’s finding that all generations want respect. If the established workers feel less valued or if the new workers feel that they are being ignored because of generational differences then it is – as Henry astutely pointed out – poor management and poor communication.

Every generation wants to learn and it is in the best interest of the agency to keep everyone’s skills up-to-date and sharp. Managers who don’t treat people as individuals and create a trusting and learning environment really should not be managers. So, I don’t think the tension necessarily has to exist but it takes an effort on management’s part to keep the tension from naturally occurring.

C Porche

I intepret the trends reflecting the preferred cultures of a generation and though they are generalized -I believe limitations diminsh when focusing on outcomes and the recognition of the viability of flexibilty to meet these outcomes. Results should be our cross sectional goal. I am a border boomer raised in a high tech family and attended a forward leaning undergraduate institution that was interneting before the word Internet.

. When the organizations culture’ is uncomfortable with the new accepted approach or values( not necessarily futuristic- just different) that enters the organization with leadership or staffing- it is a Whoa nellie moment. I see organizations eat their young ( not particularly age wise but new idea wise) and spit them out. Sometimes the timing is not appreciated and the delivery only accepted in a selective diplomatic presentation.

The challenge is deciding whether to invest your time as an employee as the organization adapts or seek the environment that utilizes his/her strengths effectively and promptly. The frustration factor can grow knowing where the employee stands and receiving limited value for what skills he can provide. Government has niche corridors where it can avoid adapting in time – managers and leaders that work and pull together and integrate these resources do not appear to be in abundant supply there.

Neil Tambe

Regardless, whether or not the differences in generations are large, small, generalized or spot-on, as government managers…those differences have to be utilized and managed. To focus on addressing or minimizing the similarities or differences of generations is to miss the point, in my opinion. What really matters is how programs are created and how managers use tools to accomplish agency mission while really helping their people grow and thrive, right? Generational heuristics exist and can be used to inform action, at least in my book.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Neil – We are a combination of many factors including generation. Gender, upbringing, ethnicity, and so on play a role in how we interact in the world. Sure, generational heuristics exist but just how much of a factor are they in dealing with the person?

What I am arguing for is that managers get to know their people on an individual basis and work to build understanding and trust. Painting people by a broad brush whether it is race, gender, or generations is poor management and poor communication.

Neil Tambe

@Bill I think we’re definitely in agreement…probably just operating at different levels of analysis. At the levels of individuals, certainly, generalizations aren’t usually effective and are almost never deep enough. However, at the institutional level I think there are ways to reach “generations” and make the workplace better for them and to get them to perform at a higher level of effectiveness.

To your point, different generations can certainly come together to learn from eachother, but that interaction has to be supported by the institution to really be effective. If generational issues arent managed well, it’s a lost opportunity the learning opportunity you’ve outlined.

A generational transition is happening, that’s basically a certainty now or in the medium-term. How we handle it is up to us.

What really excites me about a “generational approach” is that I think looking at the workforce through a generational lens does two things: 1) provides an array of levers that can be pulled to really do some great work in the federal workforce and make it function better, and, 2) provides a burning platform for transformational change in the civil service.

Of course, transformation at the institutional level will be ineffective (or even damaging) unless people take your advice of crossing the generation gap and really understanding each other as individuals. So I think it’s really great that we’re able to dialogue about this. Because while I think viewpoints seem contrary to eachother on the surface, I think they have to co-exist for great strides to really be made.

In fact, I think we could be participating in “cross-generational dialogue” right now! 🙂

Neil Tambe

Again, I agree that individuals shouldn’t typify others only by their generational identity. If that were the case, I’d be compelled to think that every Baby Boomer I work with is a cantankerous hierarchy-loving traditionalist and Gen Xers I work with would consider me a narcissistic, self-important Gen Yer. That would create horrible work environments. It’s also morally inappropriate, in my opinion.

But there are tendencies about Generations, which have data/research to back them up. Gen Yers have a propensity for collaboration and tend to like mentorship opportunities, for example. I’m meerly suggesting that when thinking at the enterprise level and trying to implement programs to improve the workforce that generational identity matters and is a useful way of thinking about the workforce issues and generating practical solutions that benefit the workforce as a whole.

For example, making structured developmental programs for new entry-level hires (something that I would expect younger employees to appreciate) with a robust onboarding program probably helps Gen Yers do better when starting at an agency and keeps them there longer. What’s better is that those sorts of workforce programs – that Gen Yers clamor for – probably benefit many members of the workforce, regardless of their age.

And, the programs don’t have to center around Gen Yers. Programs to allow Gen Xers independent leadership development opportunities (something they may not have ready access to because the generation above them is enormous and has held most of leadership positions across American organizations for many years now) could provide Gen Xers with career satisfaction and would probably prepare organizations’ workforces to be successful in the future…which benefits everyone.

I know that there’s a lot of tension around generational differences, especially in Government. But it doesn’t have to be that way, I hope not at least. Generations can be a great way to organize how Human Capital leaders approach reform and catalyze the creation of transformational programs. As long as people don’t make broad brushstrokes and deep generalizations about individual people, just as you’ve specified.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Neil – Thank you for the in-depth responses. I would like to see your research sources as I am interested in this area. My main complaint with the research that I have read is that the studies are set up so that people can self-select the traits. I have yet to see a study where the participants are objectively measured by a third party (and a bonus would be if the participants didn’t know they were being watched).

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

While we should never paint with a broad brush or stereotype, we should all be pragmatic and shouldn’t ignore the insight that we’ve gained through our personal experiences.

If I created an exam to be administered to a test group that was equally comprised of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers, I bet I could design a series of questions (that were not age specific) that could lead me to identify which group each person belonged to with a high degree of accuracy.

For example, if a question on the exam concerned acronyms used in text messaging, many Boomers would be able to answer that question accurately, but Gen X and Gen Yers would be familiar with these acronyms in greater numbers. My Boomer dad plays on the internet and would know what OMG or ROFL means – his Boomer neighbor wouldn’t have a clue! I would venture that nearly everyone in Gen Y would know. It’s not a huge deal, but the cumulative effect of a large number of these minor generational differences is the basis for a generation gap.

Patricia Reed

Working for the government in the capacity of corrections, generational differences has begun to tear at the fabric in which it was created. I am a boomer according to characteristics set by authors. However, I remember reading something that Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862, and he stated “The dogmas of the quite past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise WITH the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country” and I shall add our workplace.