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Generation X
Generation Y
Generation Z

Thou Shall Not Eat And Tweet At The Same Time: Resolving Generational Conflicts

With four generations in the workplace, compromise is becoming a necessity. But that’s easier said than done. It’s so much easier to point fingers, place blame, and criticize, isn’t it?

With four generations in the workplace, compromise is becoming a necessity. But that’s easier said than done. It’s so much easier to point fingers, place blame, and criticize, isn’t it?

I’ve seen workplaces where Boomers and Xers are absolutely irate with their younger colleagues, and Generation Y simply rolls their eyes and submits their resignations via text.

What’s fueling the most inter-generational conflict? Technology and etiquette.

Is peace-making possible? Perhaps.

Let’s start by putting these conflicts into perspective.


Generation Y (1982-1995) is the first generation to be raised in a digital world. They have never known life without technology. They don’t feel fully dressed without a mobile phone in their pockets. Instant messaging, text messaging, smartphones, tablet computers and social networking are part of their fiber.

Actually, it’s not just fiber. According to a 2011 Cisco survey, Generation Y prizes freedom, flexibility, and technology choice above all else. In fact, one out of every three Gen Y believes the Internet is as important as air, water, food, and shelter.

So this generation has actually added technology to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Boomers and Xers think this is crazy, but we weren’t raised in a digital world, either. Sometimes it can feel like Generation Y is this unusual spawn of half-human, half-robotic species, unable to function without technology in close proximity.

Boomers and Xers tell Generation Y: “Get outside for goodness sakes! Have a conversation with someone face-to-face. There’s a whole world out there!”

Meanwhile, members of Generation Y say: “I know there’s a whole world out there. I just Skyped with a client in Russia, texted my grandma in Philly, and had a tweet-up with complete strangers in four different countries.”

So how you connect has become a matter of generational perspective and we argue about the use of technology in the workplace when we fail to take another generation’s point of view into consideration.

Generation Y are emphatically clear about their desire to use social applications at work. (They rank it right up there with oxygen, after all.) Yet, according to a survey by Robert Half Technology, 54% of firms do not allow employees to visit social networking sites for any reason while at work.

Back in the 1950s, employers questioned whether to allow employees to have phones at their desks. They feared employees would while away the workday chatting with friends on the phone.

Here we are 60 years later, and the workplace still hasn’t evolved very much. Employers are still trying to control the conversations that take place.

The difference is, command-control leadership doesn’t work anymore. Generation Y is going to continue to push for increased access to technology and if we don’t find a compromise, conflict and turnover will be a constant.

The fact is Generation Y would rather text than talk. They prefer to communicate online, many times with friends they have not actually met. They know how to communicate and build relationships and generate leads, but they are much more adept at doing so via technology.

There isn’t a wrong way or right way to do business, folks. There are just different ways.  Every generation has something to teach and something to learn, and in the process we must learn to compromise.

If your company falls into the 54% that strictly prohibits social media access to employees, it’s time to start working on a compromise or risk having a disgruntled, restless, and unengaged young workforce.


Generation Y’s reliance on technology has spurred the etiquette debate. It’s more difficult for Generation Y to have face-to-face conversations. They will have to get used to email and, God forbid, picking up the phone and calling someone.

But technology is just the tip of the etiquette iceberg.

For example, one corporate giant I’m familiar with was mortified at what Gen Y was wearing to work and launched a “No B’s Dress Code”. No Bs referring to the fact that “boobs, butts, and bellies” must be covered up while at work.

Yikes! Perhaps it’s time that the Millennials meet Emily Post. Or perhaps it’s time that the Boomers take some of the blame for never teaching their Gen Y children what not to wear to work.

Let’s put Gen Y’s habits into perspective. All their lives, Gen Ys have challenged the status quo because they were taught by their Baby Boomer parents to raise questions and thumb their noses at conventions.

And yet, because Mom and Dad were seldom more than a phone call away, they never developed the true independence and confidence essential for success in business.

The parents of Ys not only fulfilled their roles of landlord and butler but also acted as “PR and marketing specialists” on behalf of their children. Editing their kids’ resumes, setting them up with their own professional contacts, and sliding them into summer jobs were just a few of their life-facilitating roles.

Some parents went as far as accompanying their children to a job interview or sending a follow-up e-mail afterwards!

Unfortunately, the concept of etiquette was lost upon a generation that became the most supervised, provided for generation in history, which grew up at the same time as technology expanded.

Needless to say, many of these recent college grads have earned the moniker of “the Peter Pan generation” due to their willingness to wear flip-flops to work, unwavering reliance on Mom and Dad, and tendency to put off general rites of passage like homeownership and marriage.

On the other hand, there’s been a substantial movement towards ‘personal branding’, entirely spurred by Generation Y.  They are looking to promote their personal brand, but, for the most part, they are civic minded and like to use their skills to benefit others around the world.

Here again, the beauty of etiquette may be in the eye of the beholder.

Generation Y may shy away from face-to-face conversations, but they are fearless when it comes to forging relationships via technology, multi-tasking, and innovation. They don’t just care about getting the business of everyone on their block: they want to capture a global audience, and that can mean great things for your business.

They are both civic-minded and entrepreneurial, so if you can see a way that they can help your business create something new that does good for the outside world, Generation Y-ers would be just the employees to use in such a project.

Yes, they have lost some sense of the importance of social skills and proper business/social etiquette when it comes to ‘real life’ interactions beyond a computer screen.

Their ability to talk, walk, text, eat and tweet all at once is an admirable feat, but it doesn’t resonate with older generations.

However, Generation Y is beginning to realize their short-comings. In New York, etiquette classes are being inundated by 20-something who are plunking down $400 an hour to learn table manners and interviewing skills.

But all the classes in the world won’t change the fact that Generation Y is wired differently from the generations that came before them.

Bottom line: Boomers, Xers, and Ys approach life and work very differently from one another. We share very different perspectives, values, skillsets, and talents.

The successful workplace will accept the differences of each generation and find ways to celebrate those unique attributes, form teams, and collaborate for the benefit of all.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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