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Older workers and managers need to remember the experience of their younger selves

Intergenerational strife is nothing new but technology and a broken social contract are exacerbating workplace tensions

Differences of opinion between the generations are nothing new. They go back millenniums and, until the early 1960s when the practice of naming generations and assigning them a set of common characteristics took root, were simply thought of as “the generation gap”.

Those born between 1946 and 1964 suddenly found themselves described as “Baby Boomers” which not only positioned them chronologically but also described what observers (initially marketeers, then sociologists, psychologists and workplace experts) believed to be their defining collective traits.

The Baby-boomer label stuck and succeeding generations have been pigeonholed as Generation X, Generation Y or Millennials and, most recently, Generation Z or Zoomers. Based on perceived common behaviours and attitudes, millennials are also described as “snowflakes” while Zoomers are sometimes referred to as the “strawberry” generation – because strawberries look firm on the outside but are soft and bruise easily.

Neither description is exactly complimentary, carrying undertones of entitlement, fragility and a lack of resilience. Much has been said about the difficulties of managing these younger generations at work. What seems to be at the root of the problem is that older workers and managers came of age in a workplace and a society that were radically different from today. Intergenerational clashes are inevitable if they hold fast to criteria that no longer apply.


Dr Emma Farrell, senior interdisciplinary researcher at UCD’s School of Education, says the sweeping generalisations that go with these “lazy stereotype” labels are deeply unreflective of today’s younger generations while Tom Hennessy, founder of Alive Coaching, believes they don’t allow for the seismic shift in societal and working norms that millennials and Generation Z-ers are negotiating, with pandemic fallout adding an extra complication.

“Simply put, preceding generations didn’t have to process change at the same scale or speed,” he says. “They had time to respond to situations more thoughtfully because the instant communication that now rules the lives of younger workers didn’t exist to anything like the same extent.”

Farrell adds that how younger generations feel about work is also underpinned by a fundamental sense of inequity because the social contract that their parents and grandparents took for granted has been broken. For roughly half the workforce now, there is no longer a certainty that, “the combination of working hard for a fair wage would lead to home ownership and access to education, healthcare and security as you got older,” she says.

“There’s nothing new about one generation not being particularly kind to the one coming after,” Farrell adds, referencing Socrates’ quote about the children of his time (469-399 BC) being lazy, bad mannered and showing disrespect for their elders. “However, we tend to judge younger people by our current selves, not how we were when we were 18 or 28. Being described as snowflakes is particularly unkind to millennials because this is the first generation that will be less well-off because of stagnant wages and higher housing costs.

“Younger generations have so much to offer and many of the current massive social reforms, such as the climate change movement, are being led by the energy, enthusiasm and persistence of younger people. This is why so much of the narrative around snowflakes in the workplace isn’t necessarily well placed.

“The generations coming through now are highly technologically adept and agile. They’re motivated, not complacent and really enjoy creativity and collaboration,” says Farrell, who adds that perhaps the key to getting the best from younger workers is to provide them with what they need to flourish.

“Younger generations are smart and highly competent. However, they are also very stressed out by long working hours and long commutes. On top of this they are feeling disenfranchised because they can’t do what they see as ‘reasonable’ things like buy homes where they want them,” Hennessy says.

“What I see in workplaces every day is that even though young people use technology very effectively to do their work better and faster, they’re struggling. In my view it’s because their heavy dependence on technology means they’ve missed out on developing soft skills such as common sense and good interpersonal communication. They lack an understanding of what it is to lead, to manage, to delegate, to give feedback, to escalate and to resource plan as they progress in their careers and find it hard to navigate their organisations as a result.

“They’re also not good recognising boundaries so they’re using substances to help them switch off or to get the hyperfocus they need to meet a deadline. Unfortunately, most don’t have a good enough understanding of themselves to recognise that this is the path to mood swings and difficult interpersonal relationships at work and at home.”

Hennessy is not down on technology, but believes it is contributing to some of the behaviours that annoy more seasoned workers.

“An example is impulse control,” he says. “This really affects decision making and younger people are often not very good at it. In part, I think it’s down to computer gaming because players are used to reacting fast and this is being translated into their emotional responses in real life. So, if they have a stinker of an email to send or they need to talk to someone about a touchy subject, they do it straight away and it turns into a barney whereas pausing and waiting 24 hours for the dust to settle could have made handling a difficult situation a lot easier.”