Got perspective? Without it, you don't "get it"

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot


To really engage, embrace and include, it's not enough to learn the typical attributes of the different generations. Significantly, the four generations in the workplace don't understand each other's underlying perspectives and formational influences very well.

For example, Gen X and Gen Y don't, in general, recognize the large impact of the women's movement and the civil rights movement on the degree of diversity in the workplace today. They never knew the world the Traditionalists and Boomers grew up in and take for granted what exists in terms of women's and minorities' economic, social and political rights and freedoms. It's quite amazing to me sometimes as I mentor and work with Gen Yers that they have not been told the stories by their parents, teachers and others.

During a visual thinking group exercise I often do in my workshops, the Boomers were shocked to see and hear that the Gen Yers particularly and some Xers thought the Boomers were conservative types, and described them as buttoned up suburbanites with their houses and yards, fairly set in their ways. Most of the Boomers thought of their generation in general, if not themselves, as progressive, sometimes radical, politically engaged, game-changers. (And as a broad generalization, they were. Perhaps we will see a resurgence of that spirit in encore careers.)

Generational Definitions

Here are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942

Baby Boomers born 1943-1962

Generation X born 1963-1978

Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)

Neither the Gen Y/Millennials nor Gen Xers have experienced the loyalty that Traditionalists got from employers in earlier days. The Gen Yers don't have a clear sense of why the older Gen Xers see themselves as "survivors" and so value autonomy. Unlike the Gen Yers following, who received tremendous attention, Gen Xers tended to be left to their own devices as greater numbers of mothers went to work full time at demanding jobs and (related or not) the divorce rate climbed.

And the Traditionalists and Boomers can't really perceive what it is like to be born into a world with e-everything. As a group, they never experienced the level of education debt the two younger generations are saddled with – though as parents, many are aware. Knowing these things rationally doesn't create the same mindset as actually experiencing the formational influences that created each generation's worldview. When that understanding is achieved and accepted on an emotional level, we can move to greater cross-generational respect and collaboration.

Perspective and context are the missing bridge elements to explain why individuals of a particular generation tend to think as they do and make the choices they do, It's not enough to know that, typically, boomers like in-person meetings or phone calls to communicate, Xers prefer e-mail or phone, and Yers prefer texting and e-mail for work. What's behind those preferences?

It's not just the addiction to gadgets, convenience and the time-saving of avoiding phone tag or having to listen to voicemail, or lack of patience and a high value on using time for more fun pursuits. A key consideration is the desire not to impose on the recipient. Several months ago I participated in a panel with Georgetown professor and best-selling author Deborah Tannen where she talked about the results of her research with students. They preferred using electronic media because it gave the recipient the choice not to interrupt what they were doing and to read and respond when (and if) they desired. Even more interesting is their perception of how to deliver bad news. Many of us are a bit horrified by the not uncommon practice of breaking up a relationship by text or e-mail. "How hurtful", many people would say.

But from the students' self-reported perspective, they felt they were being considerate, not putting the recipient of the text or e-mail on the spot and forcing a personal, emotional confrontation. They did not see it as making it easy on themselves (though subconsciously at least and to others it may look that way). Could they be on to something?

In his March 18, 2011 New York Times Op-Ed column, David Brooks refers to a study to be published in the journal "Psychology and Aging" suggesting that the older subjects performed worse on emotion recognition tests than the younger subjects, who read emotional cues more sensitively. On the other hand, I think the younger generations, depending on electronic communication, are missing out on the wealth of information we receive from non-verbal cues.

None of this is conclusive. I believe it reinforces the need to challenge our assumptions and continually reflect and develop perspective.

Please send your thoughts on these provocative observations to me at [email protected] or comment below or on Does this make you question or think about observed practices and behaviors differently?

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2011.

Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the Cross-Generational Voice and the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years, A special focus is on the profitability of improving workplace inter-generational relations as well as transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners ( ). Phyllis is the author of The Rainmaking Machine" and "The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists" (both Thomson Reuters/West 2010). [email protected]. URL:

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