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The Real Skinny on Generational Conflict - Conflict Management Part Two


September 8th, 2016

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:28pm


Millennials on the Rise

Millennials quietly made history in early 2015.
53+ million strong, the Millennial workforce, those ages 18 to 34 in 2015, surpassed Gen X and Boomers as the largest generational cohort in the US workforce, making up more than one third of American workers.i Based on analysis of U.S. Census data from the monthly Current Population Survey, Millennial representation will grow even larger when those in the 18 – 24 age range complete their education and seek full-time employment. The Gen Y cohort that follows is just now entering the labor market, representing 1% in 2016.
If we are to believe the common assumptions, this shift in demographics is wreaking havoc with workplace harmony. Are generations so different that they just can’t get along? Is this perception a reality borne out by rigorous scientific study? When employees of different ages clash in the workplace, it is easy to attribute the conflict to assumed generational differences. But, a decade of scientific research concludes that generations do not lend themselves to simplistic characterizations. Let’s look at some definitive research on the topic of generational conflict to put the issue to rest.

What does the science tell us?

A comprehensive literature review co-authored by Dr. Kenneth P. DeMeuse and Kevin Mlodzik, examined claims of generational workplace conflict made in popular business books and magazine articles, comparing those claims with results of 26 validated studies from peer-reviewed journals.ii  After reviewing purported differences between generations on career management, life/work balance, organizational loyalty, employee motivation, and work values and attitudes, their conclusions are telling. 

“Our review of peer-reviewed literature found little scientific support for the popular claim that generational differences have major impact on how business management programs should be implemented…Overall, the peer-reviewed research does not support the abundance of popular media proclaiming a workplace crisis due to vast generational differences.”

Researchers at George Washington University and the Department of Defense also reviewed more than 20 published and unpublished peer-reviewed studies and confirmed that “meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist in the workplace. The small differences that do appear are likely attributable to factors such as stage of life more than generational membership.”

The researchers go on to say, “targeted organizational interventions addressing generational differences may not be effective.”iii

In her groundbreaking book, Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground,iv  Jennifer Deal in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership studied thousands of leaders, finding that assumptions about generational conflicts and generalized characteristics of entire generations are “either unfounded or exaggerations at best”. Deal determined that “people of all ages want the same things – even if they look or behave differently.” She shared ten principles common to workers of all generations.
  1. All generations have similar values.
  2. Everyone wants respect.
  3. Trust matters.
  4. People want leaders who are credible and trustworthy.
  5. Organizational politics is a problem – no matter how old or young you are.
  6. No one really likes change.
  7. Loyalty depends on the context, not on the generation.
  8. It’s as easy to retain a young person as an older one – as long as you do the right things.
  9. Everyone wants to learn – more than just about anything else.
  10. Almost everyone wants a coach
More recently, a 2015 report from IBM’s Institute for Business Value based on a multigenerational study of 1,784 employees from companies across 12 countries and six industries, found that Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers have very similar career goals and values.v  


Perception VS Reality -  What’s the true source of conflict?

If generational differences are not at the core of workplace conflict, then what is driving this perception?
Deal’s research attributes generational conflict to individual worker’s position and power in the organization rather than to generational differences among workers. She found that conflict arising between those of differing generations is more likely a matter of the push/pull between individual employees seeking greater power and influence- clout, and those individual employees who desire to hold on to their own power and influence – a drive to retain hard won clout. In other words, life stage, positional authority in the organization, individual differences, career desires and workplace behaviors are more likely the cause of conflict than any membership in a particular generation.
Renowned management consultant Ram Charon agrees. In his book, The Leadership Pipeline, Charan and colleagues cite the level of an employee in an organization – one’s role – as a key differentiator in motivations among employees, a potential key to clashes among individual team members. How can you capitalize on this information? Make the workplace a better place to work for ALL.vi 
In their most recent book, What Millennials Want from Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforcevii, Deal and Levenson offer some clear strategies for leaders of up-and-coming Millennials. Since workers of all generations share common work goals and values, apply these same principles to all members of the workforce to ensure employee engagement in our ever-more diverse workplace.
In summary:
  1. Discourage generational stereotyping and generation bashing. Model acceptance of all types of diversity in the workforce.
  2. Establish and adhere to core values of trust and respect for individual differences.
  3. Address individual conflicts directly rather than accepting surface assumptions. Listen, encourage open communication. Set positive behavioral expectations.
  4. Encourage two-way mentoring. Establish cross-generational teaming and job enrichment strategies.
  5. Stretch. Engage workers of all generations in skill and leadership building activities.
  6. Let go. Establish an environment of collaborative leadership, initiative, and strategic risk-taking.
  7. Be transparent. Share reasoning behind decisions.
  8. Build in flexibility. Provide opportunities for increased work/life balance.
  9. Be fair. Ensure equity in pay and promotion opportunities.
  10. Share purpose. Make a difference. Do good in the world.
Want more information on managing well and reducing potential conflict in our ever-more diverse workplace? Click here for information on AJO's Team and Leadership Development Impact Series.
Watch this space for our next blog post in our Conflict Management Series, An Unexpected Cause and Solutions to Team Conflict: Lessons from Industry Leaders.


Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.