Thoughts on today's generational divide

Lewis G. Bender, Ph.D.
Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville
Speaker, 2004 APWA Congress

Younger workers and older coworkers have always had "issues" or concerns with each other. People of "baby boomer" age may remember, for example, the words sung by the father of the young girl (Kim) in the 1960s musical "Bye Bye Birdie." "Why can't they [kids] be more like we were—perfect in every way! What's the matter with kids today?" Historically, older workers have complained about the lack of respect that young people have for authority and tradition, whereas young people voice problems with the lack of flexibility and desire to change by their older colleagues. These "perennial" differences appear to be historically normal.

Over the past decade, however, previously unforeseen issues and problems have appeared between many younger and older workers. Historically, younger workers have been more eager to work and gain the approval of their supervisors than older, more jaded employees. Today, however, it is not unusual to hear supervisors and older workers complain that younger workers do not want to work very hard. "They work harder at getting out of work than it would take to do the job," lamented a Chicago area streets department supervisor. Indeed, supervisors and older workers consistently identify two areas of concern related to their younger counterparts:

  • They lack a desire to work hard
  • They lack loyalty or commitment to the organization

Clearly this does not apply to all young people. Every day we see young people who are as motivated and eager to work as their predecessors. Nonetheless, it is also true that there appears to be increasing numbers of young people who are less eager to consistently work hard or commit to their organizations.

How hungry are you?
Why are so many younger workers less eager to work today than their generational predecessors? In a strange way I believe it has to do with "hunger." The famous Abraham Maslow asserted that "a need fulfilled ceases to be a motivator." (1954, Maslow, Motivation and Personality). In other words, when we satisfy a need (or even a desire) we tend to not be further motivated by that need. For example, remember when you bought your first house or car. When you purchased your second house or car, you probably were not satisfied to buy that same level or type as before. You probably wanted something better. And so it is from one generation to the next.

My father grew up in the Great Depression. He and people of his generation struggled to survive. Work was everything. A job determined whether you had food and shelter and defined who you were. Like others of their generation, my parents worked hard to make it better for their kids than they had it when they were growing up. The work-oriented motivation of the Great Depression never left my parents—not even after they had achieved some level of comfort.

They succeeded. I grew up in better conditions than they did. Clearly, we were not rich, but I grew up in a home where there was no question that the basics—food, clothing, shelter, and security—were provided. Like my generation, I grew up believing that I would always have food and shelter (unlike my parents), and that allowed me to take comparatively more risks with my career. My generation has been more mobile, better educated, and looser with our money than our parents. We learned our work ethic from our parents and, like them, we also tried to make it better for our kids than we had it growing up.

We also succeeded—and that is the problem. The needs we fulfilled for our children are much higher on Maslow's Need Hierarchy (physiological, security, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization) than the needs that motivated us or our parents. Maslow asserts that we are motivated by the next level of need that we have not fulfilled. Thus, if we have achieved security (most baby boomers), then we are motivated by belongingness and self-esteem needs.

My kids grew up with things and experiences that few in my generation could imagine. How many clothes did you have compared to your children? How many times did you eat out, fly, go on great trips or stay at fancy hotels? If you are similar to me, a typical middle-class baby boomer, the answers to all of these questions is "much less than my children." Like us, our kids had it better than their parents. We expected to have food, shelter and security. They grew up expecting all of those things plus more fun, better clothes, and generally more creature comforts.

What does a job mean to you?
Maslow suggests that we are motivated by what we don't have as opposed to things and circumstances we have already achieved. For our parents this meant that a job was everything. Our parents did not expect a job to be meaningful, fulfilling or enjoyable. For baby boomers a job had to be more meaningful. We wanted to make a difference and/or have a job that was more satisfying and challenging. We also tended to be more flexible in our career paths than our parents.

Today if you are middle class and in your twenties your life experiences are a world away from the challenges of your grandparents. You are probably comfortable with all kinds of instant gratification. Whether it is instant money from an ATM, instant credit, or getting great clothes, toys or vacations, you are accustomed to a very different set of expectations than your parents or grandparents. So it is with the meaning of a job. Why work hard for a long time to get what you already have? The job and organizational motivators of the past do not work for younger people accustomed to a world of instant results and instant gratification of needs and wants. Most jobs today are still based on older, longer-term reward systems and are meaningless to younger employees. These and other differences in life experiences, combined with significant changes in the stability of organizations and changes in society, have contributed to significant generational differences about work.

Clearly, there are many more factors that contribute to generational differences in the workplace. Pretending that differences don't exist and/or permitting "sides" to become entrenched does not resolve the issues. It is important that leaders try to understand why these differences exist and encourage dialogue within teams to bridge the gaps.

Lewis G. Bender, Ph.D., gave multiple presentations at APWA's 2003 Congress in San Diego. He will conduct a Pre-Congress Workshop at the 2004 Congress in Atlanta entitled, "It's About You and Your Style of Leadership." He can be reached at