Generation wars: Can't we all just get along?


She's a workaholic. He doesn't get the rules. She wants a steady, independent work environment, while he prefers lots of activity and public recognition. Here's a quick guide to the care and feeding of team members from different generations.

My favorite band is playing tonight. I may quit if they don't give me the night off." "The way my team bickers and fights with each other! Honestly! I feel like a surrogate parent." "Let me do my job and I'll let you do yours." Ever heard—or said—one of these statements? It's not unusual for sparks to fly when generations collide in the workplace.

Illustration by Jennifer Taylor

Older generations complain that younger generations are lazy and focused on fun, while younger generations complain that older generations are inflexible.

So what gives? As a new generation of workers joins the workforce, people from every generation must look for ways to bridge the gap. Here's a quick look at characteristics from each of the four generations in the workplace and advice on how to leverage everyone's skills to create a more efficient, productive veterinary practice.

The New Millennium Generation (Born after 1980)

New Millenniums average six hours a day using technology for entertainment, education, and communication, so they understand technology better than most people born before 1970. Their tech-savvy skills and the glut of job opportunities have given this group a strong sense of self-worth. The result: employees who aren't afraid to be fired or ask for what they want from their jobs. Where Baby Boomers say, "I'm lucky to have the job," New Millenniums say, "You're lucky to have me."

New Millenniums care about their jobs and want to be proud of their performance. However, their idea of hard work may differ from the view of members from other generations. It's likely New Millenniums are bored by some of their responsibilities and see their job as a stepping stone, not a final destination.

Tips to work with them:

  • Use their tech skills. Since technology is an everyday tool and a way of life for New Millenniums, solicit New Millennium team members to help with technological tasks, such as installing and implementing new software or updating your practice Web site.

  • Reach out. New Millenniums may struggle to adapt when they witness animals suffering. So show your support by comforting them and providing tools to help them adjust to this part of their job.

  • Ask for their opinions. They might give great ideas for driving traffic to your Web site or updating the look of your appointment cards and promotional materials. And poll them for what young people watch for when choosing a practice for their pets.

  • Offer instant gratification. If you catch New Millenniums performing well, offer immediate feedback. Remember, New Millenniums are accustomed to getting information fast.

  • Get real with the rules. Explain which ones you can bend, change, or ditch. Working with younger generations offers opportunities to question old rules and breathe fresh air into your practice.

Generation X (1965-1980)

Gen Xers watched their workaholic parents lose their marriages, jobs, and stock options after Black Monday in 1987, the second largest U.S. stock market crash. Consequently, when the recession ended and Gen Xers entered the workforce, they displayed a different attitude about their employers and life balance issues. Gen Xers are less loyal to employers and co-workers and more loyal to themselves. Their personal lives are just as important to them as their professional lives.

Gen Xers view their job as a chance to improve skills, try something new, or become a stronger candidate for future jobs. They're the most independent generation in the workforce. Their focus on high-quality results and productivity make them a much-desired employee in a veterinary practice. So you'll naturally go to Gen Xers when you want to update a protocol, consider a new piece of equipment, or start a second location.

Tips to work with them:

  • Enable a balanced life. Ask Gen Xers to forfeit their personal life and they'll feel you're intrusive. So explain why you're requesting they come in early, stay late, or work on scheduled days off.

  • Offer opportunities to learn and work independently. This might include Web-based training or assuming inventory responsibilities.

  • Answer the why. Gen Xers are full of ideas to do their jobs better and faster. So if their ideas don't work, explain why.

  • Create a meritocracy—a culture where you reward or promote people based on merit, rather than seniority.

Fig. 1

Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Baby Boomers were the first generation graded on how well they worked and played with others. And those skills were as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. This focus created the team-oriented Boomers in today's workplace. They feel decision-making is best handled by committee, because they want what's best for the team. Their attitude is, "If the team is successful, I'll be successful."

But other team members may feel constant meetings to discuss every issue disrupt the workday and inhibit workflow. So ensure meetings are purposeful by creating a clear agenda to address particular topics and stick to the plan.

Tips to work with them:

  • Engage Boomers in decision-making. Ask their opinion, invite them to meetings, and present change as a challenge to improve the status quo.

  • Challenge them to create change. During the late '60s and early '70s, Boomers provoked great change. People today lead more productive and fulfilling lives because Boomers yearn to improve their world. Boomers rightfully perceive themselves as constant learners and adapters, because, over their lifetimes, they've challenged and changed every stereotype in their age group.

  • Offer public recognition. Boomers want to know their teamwork makes a difference, and when you praise the team, Boomers feel personally recognized, too.

The Traditional Generation (Born before 1945)

Members of the Traditional Generation seek consistency and uniformity, and their experiences as youths have influenced their expectation of command-and-control leadership in the workplace. Big business made life easy for Traditionals because it promised lifetime employment if employees worked hard and were loyal. So Traditionals stayed with one employer forever and were grateful for the opportunity.

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," is the common attitude toward Traditionals—and nothing could be further from the truth. Traditionals are out of retirement and back in the workplace because they want to share their experience and know-how. They complain younger generations don't tap into all they offer. While Traditionals don't look to move up the corporate ladder, they want to be treated as more than warm bodies.

Tips to work with them:

  • Train them one on one. Although Traditionals are open to learning new skills, they feel more comfortable exploring a new piece of equipment and learning the new protocol in an intimate environment.

  • Ask for their opinions. They may have a better solution, but until you ask, they'll keep it to themselves to avoid rocking the boat.

  • Tell them you value their experiences. Traditionals may not have seen it all before, but they have seen some, and they know what works and what doesn't. But remember, you won't benefit from their wisdom until you ask their advice.

  • Don't forget to say "please" and "thank you." Traditionals are, well, traditional, and they treat others—and expect to be treated—with respect, which includes good manners.

Examine your own attitude toward team members of other generations. Do you remember your younger self and the knowledge and skills you offered then? Or have you realized the knowledge and skills that come with experience?

We're drawn to people like us, so it's natural to feel more comfortable with people of our own generation. But when you reach out to members of other generations and create a team that takes advantage of the skills each of us brings to a practice, you not only create new leaders—you leverage a group of creative problem solvers who each bring a new perspective. And this multi-generational environment will help you appeal to all the clients whose pets need your care.

Meagan Johnson is a generational expert based in Phoenix. She entertains and educates people on attracting, managing, training, and retaining employees from every generation in presentations worldwide. She lives with four dogs for a total of 15 legs. You do the math! Please send questions or comments to

Meagan Johnson

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