Here comes Gen Y – Prepare for a cultural divide?

What do young feds think of their older coworkers – and vice-versa?

The results of an exclusive Federal News Radio survey reveal what may be a cultural rift in the federal workplace.

Many longer-term feds who took the survey said they view their younger counterparts as entitled and lacking communication skills. They say young feds are unprepared for government work. Meanwhile, young feds say their older coworkers are unmotivated and unable to adapt.

Also, longer-term feds don’t think young feds will stay in government for very long. Only 10 percent said they thought young feds would continue to work in government. Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of respondents under age 35 said they want to stay in government for their entire career.

What’s the situation at your agency? Is there a cultural divide in the multi-generational workplace? Or do employees of all ages build on each other’s strengths?

The survey was part of a Federal News Radio special report The New Face of Government.

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Susan Thomas

In interviews that I have conducted over the past two years, I have noticed a skill deficit in terms of writing and analysis as well as a sense of entitlement among many job applicants. But, one cannot stereotype. I previously hired an intern who was fabulous. Great work ethic, willing to learn and had all the right moves. He got a better job in private industry but I never had the idea that he wanted to better deal me. He was very up front and honest about his aspirations and goals. When offered a job in private industry, I encouraged him to accept. He would have been crazy had he not.

It takes all kinds to make a successful work environment. I don’t want to hire people who look and act just as I do. I am looking for creativity, energy, dedication, etc. to the work. If a person meets those criteria, the generation is irrelevant to me.

Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Wow…I find that a huge gap – for 50% of young feds to say they want to stay in govt – I think that’s actually huge. VS the 10% senior feds who think young feds will stay.

Honestly I think part of what’s needed is generational mentoring.

Profile Photo Chris Poirier

Sadly, what brought me to government is now what most likely will drive me from it: Security. With all of the economic “disasters” we’ve been stacking up, pay freezes, no bonuses, hiring freezes, and so on the Government is becoming a cold wasteland for high energy candidates looking for advancement.. (e.g., there is now little to no advancement available due to all of the above.) So, “secure” kind of..but with the tech sector returning in private industry there appears to be more options outside of government than in. I fear hard days are ahead for solid recruitment and retention…especially retention.

Profile Photo Cassidy Seeman

I think that generational mentoring would help this so much! In my department there is a huge gap of ages–we have mostly baby boomers, and then a few millenial workers (myself included). I think that the baby boomers don’t feel that they ‘have’ to mentor the younger, newer feds becuase the majority of our work force is still in their generation. I think the entitlement,and stubborness spoken about in the survey goes both ways, and that it’s something that needs to be addressed by genereation mentoring! great idea GovLoop! In many of my trainings examples are still used like “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” This alienates the younger work force–why can’t examples be used like “Where were you when the twin towers were hit”. I have had this example used in at least 4 trainings that I have been to, and in that instance I feel left out and not part of the group. There needs to be a mentality shift to include the whole work force.

Profile Photo Yun-Mei Lin

Oh boy, I need to voice an opinion here that is going to be so unpopular. Firstly, I should state at the start that my opinions are my own and in no way represent the views of any agency or entity.

I am technically a gen-x’er; however, I don’t identify myself that way and I really disagree with a lot of the multi-generational “awareness” propaganda that is being circulated these days. While it is always important to be aware of underlying differences in interpersonal interactions, including race, gender, AGE, cultural backgrounds and others, I find it ludicrous to make allowances for lack of work ethics in any way and to blame it on generational differences.

People say Millenials are entitled and Baby-boomers are unchanging – these are all true – however, if a Millenial is going to be casual about punctuality, I’m sure there will be other Millenials willing to sacrifice their casualness in order to arrive punctually for a job anyone these days would be grateful to have. If an employer is willing to overlook punctuality in their Millenials, that is not a Millenial trait, but an employer failing – and more than likely, they will eventually have to deal with the consequences of their more punctual and maybe older employees wondering why the unfairness.

On the other hand, a Baby-boomer’s unwillingness to change may be acceptable for non-consequential work practices, but if that unwillingness to try new things holds the company back from growing along with their industry, then once again, the employer is the one who will suffer the consequences.

The telling disparity between the 10% perception of the Baby-Boomers’ opinion of Millenials staying in government and the 50% of Millenials wanting to stay in government is merely one more example of forcing differences into the workplace and then being surprised that this perceived difference has caused a divide.

Personally, I don’t believe that there are differences such as Gen-X, Gen-Y, Millenials, Baby-Boomers, etc. I think that there are stages of life we ALL go through – from first entering the work-force and leaving home, to struggling to establish a home and a career, to approaching retirement and settling down (or spreading wings). These are not Generational differences (that will always be the same for a named Generational group, despite the age). I will be willing to BET that Baby-Boomers approaching retirement today, exhibited many of the flighty Millenial-specific traits when they were 18 and 20 years old.

I would love to see mentoring and teamwork built on how to get the job done, and how to move the company (agency) forward – and less emphasis on how cross-generational workers can get along. Let’s just leave it at how can co-workers get along and advance the mission?

Profile Photo Chris Poirier

@ Yun-Mei – mission oriented thought processes are awesome 😉 People will always be a part of our day-to-day lives and operations in the work place, just as you stated. It’s about people and people getting things done. Does this have to be about “age” or “culture”..I tend to agree with you that..sure certain things may “shape” people and groups of people..however identifying and addressing simply the “culture” does seem a tad short sighted (..in other words I agree with you.) It should be about adapting to..well..people..not a culture..I fear our over focus on “changing culture” is more about addressing a symptom rather than a problem..and the problem is that leadership today focuses on how to “handle” different groups of people..instead of focusing on the mission, the resources, and the ..PEOPLE!

I think if we look to the telework discussions folks are having this opens this discussion to point: For example, telework enables people to work how they work best. If everyone is productive does a manager really care how we got there? Is the work done on time? Is it accurate? Is the “customer” happy? If we say yes, then mission accomplished! so I think we need to apply this management thought process to the office. let people get things done, reward accomplishment, and address issues as they arise instead of trying to preempt something that might not even be an issue.

..time to leave the box behind people..because we’re busting out..

Susan Thomas

I am technically a baby boomer but I do not fit the profile. We have made too much of perceived generational divisions which made for great training class subjects. We need to concentrate on the strengths and gifts that people bring to the table not their ages.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

A great many of you here are too young to know, but there WAS a time, prior to maybe 1975 or so, when the preponderance of young people did not engage in work at the same time as going to high school or college. They might get a pickup gig here or there, but the only folks who were working 20hrs/wk and attending high school or college either had a car habit to support, a family that was destitute, or maybe a suddenly-pregnant girlfriend. In other words, it was much rarer than it is now.

The change in attitudes that it created about the place and nature of work, family, school, personal consumerism, was massive, and likely bigger than we realize at the moment. Once the fast food industry started picking up, and young people had access to McJobs and the disposable cash that accompanied that, everything changed, including society’s attitudes about the relative value of being young vs older.

Me, I’m genuinely surprised that there isn’t a research literature on the long-term effects of adolescents’ first employment experiences on later work relationships the way there is a huge research literature on children’s earliest experiences with close relationships and their capacity to form close relationships later in life. I figure that if having your dad walk out, or your family split up, when you were 5 changes your expectations, “mental template”, and how trusting you are about ANY close relationship for the remainder of your life, then having a series of s**t jobs where “management” accorded one little respect or did little to foster loyalty is more than likely to forge the mental template people apply to their understanding of employer/employee relationships for some time.

I think it is also fair to say that both the disposable income that subsequent generations became accustomed to via early employment, and the debt load that so many presently graduate with, tends to shape attitudes about employee loyalty and what constitutes an acceptable waiting period before seeking or expecting a promotion.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

Pt. 2

One of the concepts I was struck by during the several years I taught adolescent development, and that I think pertains here, was advanced by anthropologist Margaret Mead. She distinguished between what she termed post-figurative, co-figurative, and pre-figurative cultures. The essential principle underlying it is this: depending on how stable a culture is, or how quickly it changes, the perceived source of authoritative knowledge about the culture will change. So, when a culture is highly stable, one turns to those with the greatest experience and presumed expertise in it, namely the elderly. You can easily see this in those cultures we describe as more “traditional”, where elders have a more revered role, and the young have an affinity towards them.

As the culture begins to change, however, the perceived source of valued and valid information begins to change, such that it is one’s own generation. And as the culture starts to change at a very rapid clip, the most valid source of information is seen as coming from those with the most recent experience in the culture, namely younger generations.

The consequence, for this discussion at least, is that whatever differences we think we see are not a result of “Generation Y” or whatever other letter one wishes to use, but the effects of a culture in ever-accelerating transition. Trust me, if Mead is correct, then X, Y, and their successors will be wondering what the high school kids are doing and thinking in short order, and anyone the age of adults will be treated as a source of much less relevant information, whether they are 26, 56, or 86.

Hmm, it might be time to find a copy of Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” in a second hand bookstore and read it.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

Pt 3

Finally, I think that the manner in which public sector work has been actively marketed has also tended to shape attitudes of younger workers. Many of us older folks here did not pursue public sector work because of recruitment campaigns, banner ads, and such. That is not to say our motives were “purer”, our vocational goals clearer, or some such nonsense. Rather, we were often uncontaminated by by any of this “branding” and “employer of choice” garbage. It’s a bit like the difference between growing up with music AS music, and growing up with the implicit assumption that every song must have a video and series of mental images to accompany it. Older workers came with expectations – who doesn’t have expectations about their job – but these were often expectations formed on their own, not prepackaged as recruitment marketing.

So, when people start a public sector career with a marketing-generated image of that career, you can expect them to have different expectations.

In my own line of work, I have the dubious privilege of reading tens of thousands of survey comments from federal employees. One of my recent favourites came from someone who wrote: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful to have gotten a government job so soon out of university. But it’s been a year already, and I haven’t had a promotion yet.”

To borrow a time-honoured adage, be careful how you market yourself; you may have the consumer reaction you wanted.

Profile Photo Yun-Mei Lin

@ Chris – I agree – I think it all comes down to mission accomplishment and moving the company/agency forward as a team. It is my fervent belief that despite the importance of having “soft-skills,” the emphasis on them in today’s workplace appears extreme to the point that functional skills have been sacrificed in lieu. What good is a workforce full of employees and leaders with great people-skills and no performance skills?

Doralee Summer Cumpian



Personally, again my personal opinion, I would have to agree somewhat on the comments being given. I believe most of the time “older generations” have a tendency of doing things by the book. With the “younger” generation”, they have a tendency on being a little more laid back. Yes they may trot into work late or even leave early, but all in all they finish what needs to be done. Not to offend, but most of the time, from what I have see, they get the work done faster. They adapt fast and know the current systems making it easier to do tasks required. There is no teaching how to use an apple or how to print a document from a new pc; it’s all common to them.

Granted I am completely wrong on some people. They may be super sharp and know their stuff, but when you look at your work place and the ratio there, isn’t it the younger generation teaching the older?

So yes there is a difference, but yet again we all get what we need done. Now, some faster or longer than others, but it gets done. All in all, we know that’s all that matters.

Susan Thomas

@Doralee, Be careful not to stereotype people. The behaviors and attributes you have described can be found in any generation.