Workplace Culture

From Conflict to ‘Cohorts’ When Young and Older Workers Mix

By Emilie Beau

Oct. 19, 2010

The organization was in decline with older members seizing control and the younger generation feeling frustrated. As young members left, the organization became “top heavy with old people.” Succession was a struggle, and the organization lost status within the community.

Managing generations in the workplace may be especially daunting today as the millennials butt heads with Generation X and the baby boomers. But generational conflict has been a challenge, well, for generations. The above example comes not from a 2010 corporate office environment, but rather from a 1957 study of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union by Joseph Gusfield, a University of Illinois researcher. Gusfield concluded that two or more generations in an organization lead to factional conflict.

More than half a century later, researchers at the University of Illinois see similar tensions in a new study: The gray-haired guy in accounting is a baby boomer so he has probably never even tweeted; the young millennial generation receptionist needs constant praise and would fall to pieces if anyone yelled at her, which is unlike the 35-year-old tech guy who’s a cynical Gen Xer. While there’s validity to such generational differences, the researchers say they believe managers can encourage more open-minded, flexible thinking and build “intergenerational cohorts” to help produce harmony and productivity.

The 2010 study, Unpacking Generational Identities in Organizations, which was conducted by three professors and a graduate student and appeared in the Academy of Management Review, analyzed generational research dating back to the 1920s. The researchers also reviewed decades of sociological and psychological identity literature and interviewed employees at various organizations. “The main issue is: How do we create intergenerational relationships that allow for exchange of information?” says Aparna Joshi, the study’s lead researcher and an associate professor in the school of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Establishing such relationships requires employers to understand the differences between age-based and cohort-based identities. Most people share a set of attitudes with those who had similar “coming of age” experiences. “When you enter adulthood, certain collective memories impact you,” Joshi says, citing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and September 11, 2001, as examples of collective experiences.

A cohort-based identity, in contrast, develops from a shared set of organizational experiences. Managers can try several strategies to cultivate cohort-based identities. For example, they can organize orientations or new employee meetings so workers connect based on starting at the company together. “It’s about entering the organization and being socialized into the organization,” Joshi says. New workers go through the same socialization and meet the same contacts.

Negative developments also can produce intergenerational cohorts. In the 2010 study, researchers interviewed management from a large manufacturing company bracing for layoffs. The older employees had experienced economic downturns and counseled the younger employees on what to expect. This type of bonding laid the foundation for a shared, intergenerational experience after the furloughed employees were reinstated. 

Succession planning also can develop cohorts as senior employees serve as mentors to up-and-coming leaders. Employees come to an organization socialized to understand hierarchies and succession of power because they have a family tree where generations move up the branches into new roles such as parenthood or grandparenthood, according to the study. Joshi says the concept of the family tree socializes younger workers to expect eventual succession while still acknowledging the contributions of senior employees.

Employers, however, need to identify this succession instead of assuming workers innately understand their evolving roles. Information exchanges and mentorship programs are opportunities for senior employees to pass on information about the company. IBM Corp., for example, developed Mentor Me, which enables employees to use the company’s intranet to request a mentor. Workers can seek mentors in a variety of areas, such as career, technical and organizational, and the system will find suitable matches from a pool of volunteers, according to spokeswoman Laurie Friedman. IBM also offers a reverse mentor program for senior executives, who can learn from recent college graduates how technology is being used by consumers.These exchanges help ease senior employees’ fear of passing on power, Joshi says, while readying the next generation to lead.

Workforce Management, October 2010, p. 12Subscribe Now!

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