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Generation X
Generation Y

When Generations Fight: Resolving Workplace Conflict

Picture in your mind a playground with three children fighting over a teeter-totter. The oldest child is fighting to keep the teeter-totter firmly planted on the ground. He has a content grin on his face and he’s plugging his ears. He’s plugging his ears because the youngest child, seated on the other end of the teeter-totter high up in the air, is having a screaming fit because he wants to be the heavy-weight on the teeter-totter.

Picture in your mind a playground with three children fighting over a teeter-totter.

The oldest child is fighting to keep the teeter-totter firmly planted on the ground. He has a content grin on his face and he’s plugging his ears. He’s plugging his ears because the youngest child, seated on the other end of the teeter-totter high up in the air, is having a screaming fit because he wants to  be the heavy-weight on the teeter-totter.

Meanwhile, the middle child is standing by watching the fight unfold and growing increasingly impatient waiting for her turn. Her arms are crossed and she has a pouty look on her face.

The recent recession has only enhanced the impact that demographics will have on the workforce in the foreseeable future.

The Boomers have influenced the workplace for the last 40 years and they are determined to keep it that way. Gen Y is upset because they are used to getting all the attention as the youngest and largest generation, and the Xers are stuck in the middle and can’t get a word (or promotion) in edge-wise.

We can expect that with prolonged retirements, four generations in the workplace (and a fifth generation on the horizon), generational conflict is likely to become a major concern.

The Future of Work Research Consortium recently asked 2,500 executives which issues they believed would be critical in the future. Nearly a quarter of them rated intergenerational conflict as the most pressing concern and most rated it among their top three concerns.

Conflict is no laughing matter. U.S. employees spend about 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to $359 billion in paid hours!

So how do you keep your multi-generational team from snarling at one another? Start by playing fair.

Provide access to technologyI recently met with a company that banned texting and the employees were outraged. Tension occurs when corporate communication favors the Boomers. Gen X and Y use social media and texting to access information and stay connected. Many companies have banned these mediums and by doing so have inadvertently favored one generation over another.

Be flexibleSome companies refuse to allow their employees to have flex-time or reserve the benefit for only the most senior-level employees. Gen Y wants to work virtually and Xers want time off to care for their children. As the Boomers age, they will want sabbaticals and part-time opportunities. If generations are to  work together, flexibility has to be a reality for all, not just for some.

Encourage relationship-buildingThe generations have much to teach each other. Whether you are pairing people of different generations up for lunch or incorporating mentoring and job  shadowing programs, cross-generational communication is imperative to team-building and succession planning.

Good business is based on understanding others. The majority of us think the correct way, and the only way, is our way. In business, as well as in personal life,  that is just not true.

To work effectively and efficiently, to increase productivity and quality, recognize the value each generation brings to the table, be open to newideas, and focus on building relationships.

This is the only way we will ever get past our differences and play nice together.

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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