Jennifer Deal grew up in a multi-generational household where ideas mattered more than age. So when the CCL research scientist was asked to join a team to help clients manage generational conflict, she wondered what all the fuss was about.
Fourteen years later, Jennifer is an internationally recognized expert in generational differences. Her 2007 book, Retiring the Generation Gap, has helped managers of all ages and organizational levels to understand what’s really going on when four or five generations are working together. Jennifer also manages CCL’s World Leadership Survey and is an affiliated research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.
How did you get interested in generational differences?
JD: The short answer is that, initially, I wasn’t. I was finishing up a research project on what makes a good global manager, when a colleague roped me into a meeting about generational differences. I thought, I don’t think it’s a big deal, but if you think it’s important, I’ll show up.
At that meeting, the discussion was about clients who struggled with generational conflict. The GenXers were slackers! Older generations were stuck in their ways! I listened and had no idea what they were talking about! I am a GenXer, but that isn’t the world I live in and grew up in. My grandmother, who was born in 1903, lived with us. And in our household, age never mattered. My older relatives told me that how good your ideas were, how clearly you articulated them and how hard you worked were much more important than age.
So, the idea of conflict being driven by age or generation didn’t make sense to me. But, I tend to be interested in things that don’t make sense to me, so I was curious to understand what was going on. And I realized that since people clearly see this as an issue, good research could be really useful to people. That was in 1998.
What has kept you interested in generational differences?
JD: Researching generational difference is still compelling to me because people have the same issues they’ve had for as far back as I can find people writing on the subject! I hear the same arguments, recycled. People complained about the Xers in 1998; today, we hear them complain about the Millennials. Some of the details are different — piercings (GenXers) vs. tattoos (Millennials), Facebook (Millennials) vs. e-mail (GenXers) – but the message that many in the younger generation get is that they should sit down, shut up and defer to people who have been around longer. The older generation is often pegged as being resistant to change and inflexible. Things have gotten a bit more complicated because of the economy, but the sense that the generations are so different and these differences cause problems hasn’t changed much.
You now have 12 years of data. You’ve worked with people around the world to understand the generational divides and what we can do about it. What have you learned?
JD: There are three big messages. One, after the first year on the job, everyone wants about the same things at work: a good job, good pay and respect and recognition. Two, when you’re looking for an explanation of differences, look to level in the organization first. Level explains more than age. Three, when you see generational conflict, assume it’s about power not age. The underlying issue is generally who has power and control and who wants it.
How can managers understand and respond to people of different generations?
JD: The key is to deal with individuals, not generations. Generational stereotypes are ineffective and misleading. Deal with specific people and make decisions on merit — who can do the job — rather than stereotypes, which don’t necessarily have anything to do with the person sitting in front if you.