At The Crossroads - How To Bridge The Generation Gap

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on June 18, 2012

Almost every organization today is facing a dilemma. The dilemmas of making the two opposites meet and move together. While on one hand stands the old school of thought managers, on the other is the new school of thought.

While the one is firmly stuck to the roots of hierarchy, structure, order and formality, the other believes in more openness, less formalizations, no hierarchy and a structure-less organization. While the one is still averse to technology replacing everything that used to be human, for the other, life revolves around technology. While for one, experience of years is the key to success, the other believes that current performance is all what matters.

For one, taking things one at a time is apt, while the other believes multitasking is the need of the hour. For one, well thought off decisions with ample time given to thinking the pros and cons is the face saver, for other, quick on-the spot decisions are the saving grace. While one wants to be more indispensable in the organization, the other wants to be more employable. While one wants security of job and future; the other wants more challenging work, more recognition, more cash-in-hand. While one believes all decision making powers lie with the top few; the other wants to have an equal say in all decisions.

Isn’t it a commonplace to find a situation where the experienced managers look at the new breed of B-school managers with such distaste that meagre issues like dressing and speaking styles, use of technology often become the bone of contention between the two parties? In retaliation, the young mangers feel the older mangers are still stuck in the thoughts and processes that are outdated and a hindrance to progress.

Perhaps Eric Eriksson’s stages of psychosocial development best describe an organization’s plight. Every generation undergoes a different experience in their stages of life. These experiences determine their values and work-ethics and set the tone in which these people view their respective organizations. So, when we segregate these generations, what we get are different blocks of beliefs and experiences. This is the main cause of conflict between the generations that can be termed as “old school of thought” i.e. baby boomers and “new school” i.e. generation X and “young blood” or generation Y.

Both the schools feel the other is a threat to progress. Where do the organizations go in these circumstances? Can they choose one over the other? Is the experience of years any less that the new, fresh ideas? Is it wrong to break the barriers of hierarchy and move into more open and structure-less organization? Can we say one is right and the other wrong? That one is better than the other?

So the quintessential question is how to manage the different generations, take them all together and move ahead?

And this is one question, every organization in its transitive phase is facing and the ones who’ll come out successfully from this will be ensured of a bright future ahead.

Modelling the new way

The workforce in the organizations possess all the three generations. Naturally, their “thoughts” and “ideas” differ as the experiences that build their base are from three different eras. The only way out is to adapt. The organizations have started shifting from being rigid, high-hierarchical to being flexible and flat to cope with this challenge. We see a lot of examples of organizations changing their structure nowadays in order to be “in the race” to retain the existing talent and lure more talent towards themselves.

The baby boomers have reached a position where they can pursue their “self-actualization” goals. These goals can be challenging job or stability. The change in structure can help both these situations depending on how the top management handles the structure and the demands of the workforce.

The generations X and Y are as different from each other as they are from the baby boomers. However, changing economic dynamics have ensured that the organizations evolve further and handle the needs and demands of both these generations. Organizations that were functional or divisional in structure are now shifting towards a matrix structure informally.

A matrix structure offers a varied assortment of offerings to all the individuals in the organization. The structure empowers the generation X and Y employees by providing more autonomy and challenging work, meanwhile providing the senior managers a better control over their respective functions, an opportunity to learn new things and bring in their vast and diverse experience at a common platform to further the growth of the organization. In this way, the employees across generations can feel empowered, and most importantly – engaged.

Redefining Itinerant

As Socrates says –

“I am not an Athenian, or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”

An extension to having a matrix organization is to encourage internal mobility. The baby boomers are very much settled in their job. They feel the need for a “challenging job” in their own organization, but the generations X and Y are itinerants – they roam around from one organization to another in search of better opportunities.

With organizational spread across the globe, there are numerous opportunities for an individual to grow within the organization. The top management needs to understand that instead of increasing costs through external hiring, job rotation can play a very important role in retaining the young blood. This strategy also leads to mentoring and developing successors for senior managerial roles as they start knowing the business intricately. An exposure across sectors, businesses and locations can offer these individuals challenging roles, increase their knowledge about the business and help them grow in their career.

Together we all learn

Such a time calls for mutual learning. When we hear so much about mentoring and its benefits, why cannot reverse mentoring become an equally important aspect for the organization? It cannot be denied that there is something to learn from everyone. Where the experience of the older generation can help the younger generation learn from past mistakes and avoid them; the freshness and enthusiasm of the younger generation can help the older generation overcome their own apprehensions and fears. One such fear can be the fear of fast changing technology. At the same time, mentoring can help build one-on-one relationships and help increase understanding among various generations.

Let’s Open up

Opening the channels of communication can help bring the warring generations together. Sometimes it becomes imperative for the leaders handling multiple generations to make some things clear and explicit, which are otherwise bound to be taken for granted. A leader should bring the assumptions in the open and clear them out.

An example of this can be where the leader discusses out how the team is going to communicate with each other, what the dress code will be, what will be considered as the office hours and so on. These are very trivial things but can become big issues in cross-generational teams.

Let’s understand each other

Some sort of training program for employees to understand the working and communication styles of various generations can help prevent a lot of miscommunications and misunderstandings and thus confrontations in the team. This basically means understanding the other generation, their ideologies, work styles, preferences and aspirations from a closer angle. Regular seminars and special events can go a long way.

One size doesn’t fit all

The organization needs to be extremely careful when drafting its policies. No policy can be biased to one generation. They have to take into account the interests and aspirations of all the generations. This will not only keep all the employees happy but also avoid ill-feelings. A classic example for this can be what motivates whom? For the younger generation, higher salaries and bonuses can be motivating while for the older generation, recognition of work and respect might just serve the purpose.

Let each of us take a step forward

At the end of the day, each generation needs to understand the generation gap is and always will be there. The older generation needs to realize where we are today, somebody else was someday and we comprised of the so called ‘younger generation’ and the younger generation needs to understand where we are today, somebody else will be someday and we will become the so called ‘older generation’. This is the fact of life which we encounter not only in our personal lives but professional lives as well and the only way to win it over is to adapt.. A few steps by each towards the other can gradually help bridge the gap.


There are numerous ways in which organizations can sail through the crossroads they find themselves at. Some measures are drastic and epic in nature, while some require minor tweaking in the organization. The key to success in achieving a perfect balance to handle such changes is by being a part of it and flow with it – just like water. For Change, no matter how much everyone resists it, is inevitable.

This article has been authored Sugam Malhotra and Vineet Gijre from IMI New Delhi.

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Views expressed in the article are personal. The articles are for educational & academic purpose only, and have been uploaded by the MBA Skool Team.

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