When Jan Malley took a job as a cashier at a sporting goods store last year, she was stunned by her college-age coworkers.
"These kids wear everything tight and formfitting," says the 58-year-old former bank escrow assistant from Duncanville, Texas. "Sometimes one of them will be scheduled to work and just won't show up. Or they'll refuse to do certain jobs, like cleaning up after the store closes. At their age I never would have said 'no' to a boss." The 56-year-old president of a Southern California temp agency has a similar tale: "One day an office phone was ringing and the only person besides me who wasn't already on a call was a 23-year-old recruiter," she says. "He let it ring until I, the company president, had to answer because, as he later told me, he was 'down to the last two minutes of an eBay auction.' He said it like I should get my priorities straight."
But ask most twenty-somethings why they act this way in the workplace and the response is apt to be: Spare us the "oh, those impossible kids" stories. "I think that people over 55 have a more rigid idea of how things at work 'ought' to be," says Julia Gillies, 26, a California event planner. Her generation, she says, is less bound by outdated professional rules and customs.
As the recession rages, retirement accounts dwindle, and more and more workers -- whether through choice or necessity -- stay in the workforce longer, three generations (and often four) are laboring side by side. The clashes produced by this togetherness -- some serious, some almost slapstick -- occur daily in offices, stores, restaurants, and schools. In a 2004 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly half of human resource managers said they were aware of intergenerational conflicts in their workplace. And in a 2008 report on "Millennials at Work" from PricewaterhouseCoopers, 61 percent of chief executives surveyed (from 44 countries) said they had trouble integrating younger employees.
On the plus side, there's mounting evidence that we're all learning to get along. Indeed, despite the strife, the multigenerational experience may be changing us -- and the workplace itself -- for the better.
The three major players in this workplace drama are the Baby Boomers, the postwar generation born between 1946 and 1964, who make up 40 percent of today's workforce; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, 36 percent of the workforce; and the newest kids on the block, the Millennials, born between roughly 1981 and 2000, who make up 16 percent of the workforce but are growing steadily. (The remaining 8 percent -- and shrinking -- are the Matures, born between 1922 and 1945.)
Blame history for the differences between them. Boomers, raised in prosperity and pushed to become driven and competitive -- you have to be when there are 78 million of you - were antiestablishment during the Vietnam era but have proved traditional on the job. They believe in working hard, dressing appropriately, logging long hours, and paying their dues. "Boomers expect that those coming into the workplace will take their time, learn, and earn their stripes slowly," says Mary Crane, a Denver-based corporate consultant.
Gen X, born when the birthrate was the lowest in U.S. history and 66 million strong, grew up in an era of feminism, divorce, working moms, and latchkey kids. Between Watergate, recession, and mass layoffs, cynicism became one of their defining characteristics. "These men and women put greater emphasis on work/life balance and less on employer loyalty," says demographer Neil Howe, coauthor of the influential book about Generation X, 13th Gen. "They're independent, resilient, and extraordinarily creative and entrepreneurial, but they don't have much trust in institutions. They constantly look around for the next opportunity; they travel light."
Then there are the Millennials -- at a whopping 83 million, the biggest generation of all. Millennials are technokids, glued to their cell phones, laptops, and iPods. They've grown up in a world with few boundaries and think nothing of forming virtual friendships through the Internet or disclosing intimate details about themselves on social networking sites. And, many critics charge, they've been so coddled and overpraised by hovering parents that they enter the job market convinced of their own importance. Crane calls them the T-ball Generation for the childhood sport where "no one fails, everyone on the team's assured a hit, and every kid gets a trophy, just for showing up."
Workers of this generation are known for their optimism and energy -- but also their demands: "They want feedback, flexibility, fun, the chance to do meaningful work right away and a 'customized' career that allows them to slow down or speed up to match the different phases of life," says Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace. Mix these three perspectives in one office and there's bound to be combustion.