June 3, 2011

AUSTRALIA: "Baby boomers will continue to occupy most senior management positions"

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MELBOURNE / The Age / Management Line / Blogs / June 3, 2011

Burden of the boomers

By Leon Gettler

Boomers are now are regarded as the biggest threat to workplace harmony.
Everyone seems to hate them. Generation Wars continue.
Illustration: Robin Cowcher

First Gen X and Y copped it, but now Boomers are being named as the latest threat to workplace harmony. Is this the start of the workplace generation wars?

Since they joined the workforce, many Gen Y-ers have taken a lot of flack or being lazy, selfish and expecting the world to owe them a living. Much of it is unfair over-generalisation, and just represents a failure to understand where people are coming from and how they were raised.

Now a new study has found that the problem lies with boomers. The latest Leadership, Employment and Direction survey finds that boomers are the least popular bunch in any workplace. Generation X finds its boomer colleagues inflexible and set in their ways and Generation Y thinks they’re technologically incompetent. As for the boomers, they don’t want to work with other boomers because they find them to be up themselves, totally self-obsessed and determined to do everything their way, and only their way.

Leadership Management Australasia chairman Grant Sexton says it means managers and HR departments need to rethink their attitudes towards Gen Y and stop assuming that the problem lies with difficult and demanding younger workers. "The Baby Boomer issue is a sleeper - an emerging and ongoing challenge for HR departments,’’ Sexton says. "It threatens to undermine stability of the workforce into the future because Baby Boomers will continue to occupy most leadership and senior management positions in this decade."

Much of this supposedly boils down to generational differences in the workplace. We have reports of research showing that managing the different generations is now becoming a major issue in workplaces around the world. According to the research, 68 percent of Baby Boomers feel “younger people” don’t have as strong a work ethic as they do. Similarly, 32 percent of Gen X-ers believe the “younger generation” lacks a good work ethic. And 13 percent of Gen Y-ers say they have a good work ethic, but they’re just not given credit.

Technology is another flashpoint. Boomers and Gen X-ers, according to the research, prefer to communicate by phone or face-to-face, while Gen Y prefers blogs, IMs and text messages. These differences are bound to create misunderstandings.

Human Resource Executive Online reports that a global survey of employee attitudes based on responses from more than 4,000 employees in 14 countries found sharp differences in their attitudes towards work. Put simply, most Gen Y workers don’t believe their hard work will be rewarded. According to the survey, 38 per cent of older workers aged 56 to 60 believe they will always be recognised and rewarded if they work harder or take extra responsibility but only 19 percent of Gen Y workers feel the same way. Which probably explains why boomers feel so let down with more of them finding themselves being forced into early retirement. They weren’t expecting it. Gen Y, on the other hand, would not be surprised.

Of course, there’s nothing new about differences between generations, it’s ever been thus. What makes it different now is that the boomers will be leaving the workforce in droves over the next few years and they will be leaving faster than Gen Y will be entering. It’s a point I look at here.

I suspect another flashpoint is what some see as the boomers’ sense of entitlement. As the Boomers age, their hips, knees, shoulders and other parts are wearing out. But instead of cutting back on physical activity, or getting themselves a cane, they are demanding that medical science replace their aging joints so they can continue to run or walk or play squash and tennis or whatever they want, and stay forever young.

Ann Clurman of The Futures Company, which tracks consumer attitudes, sums it up best in this interview on CNN:

“Boomers are all about exploration and transformation. Many of them reject the idea of retirement that they saw firsthand with their parents, where you stop changing and growing and become a fixed entity,’’ Clurman says. “"Boomers have a hard time giving up control. For them, control is a fundamental right born out of basic entitlement - they grew up in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and a basic feeling that the struggle for survival was over.”

While there are undoubtedly differences in outlook between each generation, I suspect much of this talk is driven by marketing campaigns which had led us to generalise and over-simplify. I meet people from all generations every day and believe that people are pretty much the same regardless of their age.

Leon Gettler is a contributor to The Age, specialising on management issues. His interests include business ethics, corporate governance and the intricacies of the US Sarbanes-Oxley ruling. He is the author of two books, including Organisations Behaving Badly: A Greek tragedy of corporate pathology, which focuses on the forces that lead smart executives to make dumb decisions.

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