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What’s wrong with kids these days… and other questions every generation has of the next

Dr. Gary Ellis, Program Head of Justice Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber, has been involved in research in the area of leadership development for more than 10 years.

As part of an open lecture series at UofGH, Dr. Ellis spoke about how generational differences are affecting the workplace – and why they are more of an issue today than ever before.

Photo of Dr. Gary Ellis

Q&A with Dr. Gary Ellis

When did you first become aware of generational differences in the workplace?

I was working with the FBI in 2002 when police chiefs from North America’s largest cities gathered to identify and discuss the biggest issues affecting the sector. 

Despite 9/11 having its tremendous impact on policing, the number one issue identified was how to deal with the new generation of officers.  At that time, it was Generation X that was moving into the workplace.  

There was a great deal of angst, bias and confusion as to how to handle this new generation and their different interpretation of work ethic and dedication, for example.  Of course, at that time, GenX represented a third generation entering into the mix; now for the first time, we have four generations working together in the workplace – and we’re about to see a fifth enter in. 

Today, the Generation X’ers (1965-1978) are in charge; the Millennials or Gen Y’s (1979-1988) are hitting the workplace in huge numbers; the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) won’t leave; and the Z’s (1999+) will be very shortly entering the workplace.

How do you see generational differences playing out in the workplace? 

Very often, you’ll see conflict within a workplace – but just as often, who’ll find people who aren’t quite sure where that conflict is coming from.  A healthy organization is one where leadership traits are encouraged and developed in all people, at all levels. 

It goes beyond being a learning organization – it goes to the core of what people value and need to accomplish the mission.  We can no longer say to people, “just do your job and be happy.”  We also need to realize that though the leadership traits that are valued may be the same, they also mean different things to the different generations. 

How so? 

I use six areas of leadership traits in order to evaluate these differences:  caring, competence, credibility, communication, courage and collaboration.  While all generations share the same basic values, each carries a different perspective.

A Veteran may view caring as dedication and self-sacrifice, duty and tradition; Gen X’ers may view caring as work/life balance, as freedom, and being environmentally friendly.  Veterans may also view collaboration as whatever the boss says – they’re the boss; whereas younger generations may view it with much less hierarchy, where inclusivity and collective action is key. 

In the workplace, a Baby Boomer may be uninterested in documentation and paperwork – and so may say something verbally, expecting it to get done.  This may be lost on a Millennial who would want to see it in writing, listed in detail, and expect check-ins and approvals along the way. 

There seems to be a view that ‘all is lost’ on the next generation, which ironically never seems to be lost on any generation.

True – but the reality is, all generations do just fine in the end.  We’re always afraid of what we don’t know and don’t understand.  And these generational differences are often misunderstood – again, leading to conflict. 

Communication is the primary leadership trait in dealing with various generations.  You can’t communicate with someone unless you understand how that person receives information, which is often filtered through generational markers – economic status, social unrest, war, and technology shifts to name a few. 

These filters are profound, they’re real, and if people can understand them – that understanding will allow for better communication, and ultimately reduce conflict in the workplace.

Justice Studies
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