Barbara S. Hoenig, a consultant on mature workers and workforce development, contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. Barbara has more than twenty-five years’ experience in the fields of aging, intergenerational and workforce development programs and policies. She develops strategic alliances between businesses, the public workforce system, policy makers and national and community-based organizations.

Older people are staking their claim in the workplace. They are continuing to work beyond the “normal” retirement age for two reasons. First, they need the income. Secondly, they are healthy and up to the demands of the job, and they feel that they have something special to offer.

In several focus groups conducted in 2005 with both working and retired senior pharmacists throughout the country, I learned that they were keen  on mentoring young people entering the pharmacy profession. This interest extended to helping secondary school and high school students, particularly minority students, choose pharmacy careers and to supporting and developing opportunities for pharmacy technicians, who were already in the workplace, to move on to becoming full-fledged pharmacists. “Pharmacy is a helping profession” was a repeated refrain. Moreover, the senior pharmacists saw the opportunity for growth and the prospect of receiving continuing education credits as part of the mentoring credentialing.

Many older pharmacists see the value of continuing to work rather than retiring. Aside from salary and benefits, they want flexible hours, a friendly atmosphere, and “ergonomic” adjustments to make the physical environment more comfortable. And above all, they want to be recognized for the interpersonal skills they have perfected over the years.

Yet, older workers need to be able to fit into today’s multigenerational workplace if they want to survive and prosper, recognizing they are near the top of the age demographic that rises through four generations: going from Generation Y (born 1981-2000) and Generation  X (1965-1980) to Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Traditionalists (1945 or before). Each generation is shaped by forces that have produced differing perspectives on work ethic, leadership and authority, communication, problem solving and decision making.

A hallmark of today’s workplace is the interaction between the generations in the workforce. Past barriers are lowered, and the different values and perspectives of the generations come together head on. At times, differences between these generations may lead to tensions in the workplace. But whether intergenerational tensions are the root cause for tension in the complex workplace environment is a matter open for further study.

A recent national survey conducted for Corporate Voices for Working Families (Corporate Voices) by Public Policy Polling, through the generous support of Workplace Options, probes answers from a sample of 642 American workers to five questions that focused on their experience and perceptions about intergenerational attitudes and conflicts at work. The worker sample is distributed across age, gender, ethnic background, industry sector and salary.

Broadly speaking, the responses overall show that less than 20 percent  of the workers polled feel strongly that there is conflict or discord between the generations in the workplace. In fact, only 9 percent of the all those surveyed answered “Yes, always” to whether they are uncomfortable working with different generations or age groups.

However, it is significant that the responses over the entire sample are heavily weighted toward the views of “White” participants and also toward the Baby Boomer generation. The sample of 642 American workers is 68 percent White, versus 14 percent Hispanic, 12 percent African American, and 6 percent other, reflecting the U.S. population.  By generation, it is 60 percent Boomers, versus 10 percent Gen Y, 18 percent Gen X, and 12 percent Traditionalists. The responses vary greatly according to race, age, and employment sector.

A close look at the data by race and ethnic origin reveals that the fraction of Hispanics (21 percent) answering Yes to being always uncomfortable working with other generations is 3 times the fraction of Whites (7 percent ) with that view. By contrast, a conclusive 83 percent of the African-American participants register an emphatically that they are not uncomfortable working with other generations, compared to 66 percent overall.

One prevailing feeling emerging from the survey is that mature workers have more respect for young workers than vice-versa, and the survey indicates that this feeling grows as workers grow older.

Corporate Voices’ survey generally supports the findings of a 2009 Pew Research Center survey of views in the general public , which found that only about a quarter of the respondents (26 percent) saw any big conflicts between young and old in America. The big source of difference between diverse generations, the Pew study found, is in how they use technology.

Indeed, the jury is still out as to whether any inherent generational characteristics might be a significant cause of conflict in the workplace. However, as noted by Pitt-Catsouphes and Matz-Costa of Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work, external factors such as flexibility and the drivers of employee engagement may be important for individual success, more in some age groups than others.

Having a four-generation workforce is not only a matter of necessity because of our aging population, but it can also have benefits of synergy by which the whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts. This calls for creative and perceptive management.

An AARP study offers six principles for managing generations successfully that encourage open discussion of perceived differences, give recognition to the personal needs and preferences of workforce members and build on individual strengths. In this way, contributions from a mixed-generation team may bring unexpectedly positive results, making the business case for promoting better intergenerational dynamics.

Sure, there is friction in the workplace, and sometimes the source may be generational. It goes without saying that conflicts between workers are commonplace for countless reasons. Many of these may turn out coincidentally to be between Gen Ys and Baby Boomers or Gen Xs and Traditionalists, for example. But whether intergenerational tensions are the root cause and in a class by themselves as a distinguishing feature of interaction in the complex workplace environment is a matter open for further study.

At a strictly practical level, SHRM gives some key strategies for successfully retaining talent and avoiding conflict in a multigenerational workforce. They include:

  • Communicating information in multiple ways, both oral and written, along with
  • Training for managers to be sensitive to intergenerational differences, as well as
  • Collaborative activities that promote intergenerational respect and inclusion, and finally
  • Mentoring programs in which workers of different generations work together and share experiences.
In several focus groups conducted in 2005 with both working and retired senior pharmacists throughout the country, I learned that they were keen