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A puzzle for the generations

PHILADELPHIA -- The keynote speaker from AARP had just finished her presentation when John Egnar took the podium. The human-resources expert and father of six -- two of whom work with him -- was about to kick off a panel discussion on how so-call...

PHILADELPHIA -- The keynote speaker from AARP had just finished her presentation when John Egnar took the podium.

The human-resources expert and father of six -- two of whom work with him -- was about to kick off a panel discussion on how so-called Silent Generation folks, baby boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials can start getting along better.

Because apparently, when rubbing elbows at work, the four generations tend to go a bit rough on one another.

And with 70 percent of boomers telling AARP they won't retire at age 65, and oodles of their kids now sidling up against them in cubicles, the Freudian factionalism is keeping human-resources managers up at night, the AARP speaker said.

Egnar hoped the panel would get through the thorny issues fearlessly.


"We're looking for some disagreement at times," said Egnar, a statesman-like figure.

If only someone had thought about that before sending out the panel invites:

- Deborah Russell, director of work force issues at the 50-and-older advocacy group AARP. Age: 47.

- Marjorie Stein, director of employee relations, CIGNA. Age: 59.

- Claire Simmers, professor of management at St. Joseph's University. Age: 59.

- David Marks, financial analyst, Campbell Soup Co. Age: 27 (the lone non-boomer).

And the audience? "We can see that boomers dominate the room," AARP's Russell pointed out after calling for a generational show of hands.

So, it came as no surprise that most of the conversation dealt with how boomers (born 1946-64) and even-older Silent Generation workers don't understand the young'uns.


Russell said her own 70-year-old father, a career diplomat, bristles when he thinks about Gen Xers (born 1964-80). He perceives them as "lazy" and lacking in commitment, she said.

It's as if people like Russell's dad never got the memo: Younger people grow up, and they get pretty good at stuff, too. As a member of Gen X, I can say with relative authority that we tossed our grunge flannels and slacker reputations back when Kurt Cobain committed suicide.

In 1994. When Bill Clinton was midway through his first term as president.

"These are midcareer workers!" Russell tells her esteemed father.

The four generations, she said, have different career outlooks.

- Silent Gen: Depression babies. Care about the career ladder and respect.

- Boomers: Post-World War II babies. Care about status, climbing the career ladder.

- Xers: Latchkey kids. Don't care about climbing the career ladder. Do care about getting results.


- Millennials: Boomers' kids now entering the work force. Want job stability, creativity, teamwork.

"I think boomers probably coined more phrases and company titles than any other generation," Russell said. They need to feel recognized.

Hang on. Last time I checked, fancy titles also bring cash -- salary boosts. That Xers and Millennials don't want this is hard to swallow. An Xer on the panel might have made that clear.

"I would have liked to have seen a little more diverse representation on the panel," Marks said when we spoke a few days ago.

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce said panelists were chosen for their research credentials or on-the-ground experience dealing with intergenerational diversity in the workplace.

Indeed, generational chafing at Campbell, primarily between Millennials and boomers, led Marks to help form the Bridge Network at the South Jersey company. The group crafts events at which employees of all ages try to shed threatening assumptions such as:

"Not every Millennial wants to be the CEO in three years, and not every boomer is not good with technology," as Marks told the audience.

Sounds a bit like a haves-vs.-have-nots issue. But there was no talk of that from the panel members. Rather, they blamed the ruckus on differing communication styles.


Thank goodness, Greg Williamson spoke up from the crowd. The 49-year-old boomer, as he identified himself, saw it as a battle for resources.

"Is it purely an age issue, or is it a reverse-intimidation issue?" he asked. "Many boomers feel intimidated by young, talented people."

Another audience member, a hiring director for a public accounting firm in Philadelphia, said that too many of her older employees have "I shouldn't have to change" attitudes, while younger hires "have been given this expectation of clout."

"Where to start?" she asked.

First, let's give props to the Chamber and Towers Watson for having a forum on the topic.

And, Cigna's Stein said, make sure the people in charge (the bosses) realize this problem is too big to ignore if they want their businesses to stay successful.

Let the bosses know, she said, "what the cost will be if they don't help bridge that gap -- that you're going to lose these younger people."

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