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Bridging the generation gap in professional services

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Thanks to longer life expectancies, necessity and technology, the baby boomer generation is working longer than prior generations — and working alongside their children and grandchildren in greater numbers than in the past.

If your workforce is starting to look like an age barbell, with lots of younger workers and older workers and not many in between, your firm may be experiencing generational issues. Generational issues are not new to the workplace; what is new is that the gap is much wider.

The generations

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 80 million millennials (those born in 1985 and later) and 50 million Gen Xers (born 1966–1984), and the millennials are even more numerous than their baby boomer parents. Within the next year or two, Gen Xers and millennials are likely to make up 50 to 60 percent of the country’s workforce.

Their sheer numbers and their immersion in technology give them the power to radically transform every aspect of society. As these talented individuals permeate the professional services sector, businesses are faced with unique opportuni­ties and challenges resulting from the interactions of three generations working side by side.

One of the major challenges will be the knowledge transfer­ence required in such a knowledge-intensive business. Rapid technological changes, combined with the need for sophisticated customer service, will make collabo­ration across the generations essential to a successful business model.

The older generations tend to think the younger generations have no work ethic. However, work ethic can no longer be measured solely by hours spent in the office; it is being redefined in terms of results produced, with less focus on how, when or where the work is done. As we often hear from younger workers, “Are you paying me to be here, or are you paying me to get the job done?”

Gen Xers and millennials have a very strong work ethic when it comes to qual­ity standards, getting the job done and contributing to the company’s success. Gen Xers and millennials can demonstrate to boomers that working long hours isn’t necessarily the best way to inspire creativity and solve problems.

Work/life balance is very important to Gen Xers and millennials, especially after seeing their parents work long hours away from home. Don’t assume that if employees are not in the office, they are not thinking about work. Millennials are known to surf the web for hours seeking solutions to issues, and they don’t mind as much as Gen Xers do if they are contacted after work hours about a work issue. Millennials thrive on constant connectedness via cell phones, text messages and social networking.

Managing the generation gap

Acknowledging that generation gaps exist is the first step in bridging that gap. Managers who solicit input and involve employees from the various generations to help develop policies will create a positive, productive working environment. A struc­tured brainstorming session before stressful times such as tax season can help to solve problems and bring the generations closer together.

Millennials will often suggest ways to deal with data more efficiently, while asking for more cross-training and professional devel­opment. Boomers will offer to lead training sessions and provide insight into good client communication skills.