Workplace Culture

Understanding and Managing Generational Tension

Canada’s generational cohorts are large and at times, in conflict. There is hope – by understanding the underlying causes of tension in society and at work, managers and individuals can learn to rise above it.
— By Donna Chan

Judgments cast on the generations that went before, or those that have come after, are nothing new. Ranting about “young people today” or, alternately, protesting against the establishment, are traditional practices. But ageism and stereotypes can cause serious harm to workplace cultures where teamwork and trust are essential. The following paragraphs will examine the societal issues contributing to generational tension in Canada today, how it affects workplace relations, and what can be done about it.

Generational Tension in Canadian Society
When the “Ok, boomer” meme went viral in 2019, it provided a concise way for millennials to label and dismiss any perceived criticism of their generation. This was especially true with regard to generational cultural differences, such as varying views on climate change or different approaches to work ethic and financial management. While stereotypes of the young as indolent and the old as obsolete are perpetually enduring, there are present dynamics in Canada that contribute to this generational tension.

For many millennials in Canada, debt is a heavy burden. Researchers estimate that millennials carry over three times as much debt as prior generations did at ages 25-34. Part of this disparity relates to the rising costs of college education, leading to an increase in student loans. And while millennials may have higher salaries at their first jobs than boomers, after adjusting for inflation and accounting for debt their overall net worth is lower and their financial outlook is less promising.

These differences can lead to resentment and misunderstanding. Older generations may find it difficult to understand why young people are not buying homes, and presume that technology-obsessed millennials lack aspiration and fritter away their time and opportunity while expecting others to do the “adulting.” On the other hand, younger generations resent the boomers who held their jobs for decades, reducing upward mobility, then sold their much-appreciated homes for large sums and retired while the job vanishes.

As more than 5 million Canadians reach retirement age in the coming decade, almost all boomers will have to face lower interest rates that could decrease their investment returns. For many, this could mean delaying retirement longer in order to improve their economic situation as life expectancy has also gone up. Boomers working longer could impact the job opportunities for millennials to reach leadership and management roles. Combined with pre-existing social divides between generations, the current financial situations for each group add to the stress.

Paul Kershaw, professor at the University of British Columbia, notes: “There is absolutely an undercurrent of generational tension that exists at this moment in a way that we haven’t seen in the past.”

Generational Tension at Work
This societal tension can also be found in the workplace. Millennials are now the biggest cohort in Canadian companies, and this generation has different hopes and expectations for their working lives.

For example, 70 percent of millennials would rather work from home. Many lack loyalty to their employers, who may have offered mostly internships, contract positions, and underemployment in general, leading to an increase in job-hopping. Millennials have different approaches to hierarchy. This can be a real struggle for managers who need to hire and train new workers, but don’t know how to deal with their demands for greater autonomy.

Since millennials have grown up with the Internet and advancements in technology, they may rely on and expect technology to be integrated with their workplace. This can be a great advantage for employers able to adapt and implement new ideas. Many more millennials have pursued advanced degrees than their boomer parents. Again, savvy businesses can put this additional training to good use, but it can also contribute to tension at work when education is pitted against experience.

There is also the dynamic of boomers retiring later, while millennials chafe at being told to “sit tight” and wait for their turn to lead. Over 60 percent of millennials said they would likely leave their employer in the next four years, and the primary reason was that their current boss was not giving them opportunities to develop their leadership and professional skills.

Hope For The Future Between Generations
Is there any hope for generations to work together charitably and effectively? One positive example can be seen in Vancouver Food Bank volunteers, who are primarily students and seniors. United in a common cause and shared sense of purpose, they can lay aside accusations of “whose life is easier” and get to work making life better for those truly in need.

There is a real need to share both institutional and technical knowledge from one generation to the next, so encouraging mentoring between employees of varying ages can help the elder generations share what they’ve learned through experience, and younger workers to pass along their tech-savvy innovations.
Workplaces can move past generational tension by uniting workers around a strong sense of company mission – one everyone (not just boomer leadership) is on board with. There is a real need to share both institutional and technical knowledge from one generation to the next, so encouraging mentoring between employees of varying ages can help the elder generations share what they’ve learned through experience, and younger workers to pass along their tech-savvy innovations.

Organizations that invest early in their younger employees through professional development and leadership opportunities may well discover loyal workers who feel they are a real part of the business and are willing to stick around. Integrating young employees can be challenging for managers, but can pay deep dividends in the long term.

Companies that persist in perpetuating stereotypes, like “millennials are lazy and not worth recruiting,” will miss out on both a large cohort entering the Canadian workforce as well as an optimistic, dynamic, creative generation that deeply desires to make a difference in the world. Hiring managers who can come to see the environmental factors leading to job-hopping and adapt to millennials’ more flexible work expectations will be well positioned to help workers of all ages thrive.