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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.


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