Four Generations Apart: Bridging The Values Generation Gap

Four Generations Apart: Bridging The Values Generation Gap
Image by Barry Plott 

"Children without values are like
a coatroom without hooks."

-- George Gecowets

In judo, the teacher, or sensei plays an important role in the development of his student's character. Judo goes beyond teaching physical technique to teaching the values of courage, character and benevolence.

Keeping a commitment to practice three times a week, 52 weeks a year teaches students perseverance, making them stronger mentally and physically. Competition builds their courage. Character comes from accepting wins and losses with equal measures of humility and grace. 

Learning Values

Most of us learn our values at home. Our parents teach us right from wrong, though sometimes our grandparents or an exceptional teacher makes an impact. Often it wasn't so much what our parents said but what they did day-in and day-out.

"It is inescapable that parents shape your values by their lifestyle and little day-by-day events. I remember how hard my Dad worked, and how exhausted he was at the end of the day. It wasn't anything he said, but I learned that you owe your employer a day's work for a day's pay," says consultant, Cyndy Karon.

These childhood values become more important as we age. We are hungry for re-enforcement of the values we were raised on, the lessons learned from our parents, churches and schools. We've reached a point of success where we pause to catch our breath and measure the cost of the long climb. By the time we reach midlife, many of us have been knocked down. We may have faced failure in our career or marriage -- we may have survived a serious illness or loss of a parent.

As we grow older and have a greater sense of self, our values become seamless. These values become integrated in all you do and carry into all parts of your life. Our parent's generation searched for answers in their churches, civic groups and families. But today, with our families scattered across the country and repeated relocation resulting in isolation from our communities; work has become the main connector in our search for values.

Why Values?

"People desperately need to know that what they do
makes a difference in the organization's success."

-- Heber MacWilliams

Today there is a movement sweeping corporate America, a return to the importance of values and character in leadership. Businesses' growing interest in values is not altogether altruistic. It is driven by an authentic need to attract and use the talents of a shrinking and increasingly independent workforce.

Company values give a sense of purpose that goes beyond profit making. People come to the office with more than their bodies and minds. They are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives and their work. We want to feel that what we do all day has a positive impact on our lives and our communities, that we are making some small difference in the world. We want to belong to a workplace where people share a sense of purpose beyond making money. We long to connect our idealism with what we do at the office.

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Of course we work to pay the mortgage and save for our children's college tuition. We labor to make the car payments, put braces on our kid's teeth and food on the table. But people want more than a paycheck. In exchange for the long hours we spend at the office, we want our work to be a source of satisfaction. We want to feel we are of service to something larger than ourselves; to dedicate ourselves to work that makes a difference.

For many companies, the effort to create meaning at work grew out of repercussions of "rightsizing" which resulted in a dispirited and disloyal workforce. Some believe values leadership is one more program catering to the concerns of baby boomers. But the boomers are not the only ones looking for meaningful work; the search for purpose is even more pronounced for Generation X.

Hard-bitten business veterans place values leadership squarely into human resources "warm fuzzies" training. "Values based leadership training is like standing before a group with a plate of cookies and asking, would you like one?" says trainer, Ted Fancher. But in the ongoing war for talent, values can become a powerful tool for recruitment and retention. Company values can provide a common ground, a foundation on which to work towards a shared purpose.

Employees come into your organization with their values largely shaped, but companies can benefit by communicating their values and connecting them to leadership. For Gen X, work may be the only place they get values training.

In an early 1990's Home Depot employee orientation video, Bernie Marcus looks squarely at the camera and says, "We take care of our own." During my three-month orientation with The Home Depot, I traveled non-stop from store to store. Everywhere I went, the associates told me, "This is the greatest company in America. I never want to work anywhere else." Their energy and excitement was contagious. In those days, I would have paid the company for the privilege of being a part of it.

Values Are Passed Down Orally

Company values are passed down orally because people learn through stories and bond through a shared history. Ken Langone, Lead Director for The Home Depot, used to tell the story of an hourly associate who won the lottery. An overnight millionaire, he still worked every day, loving the company more than money.

As leaders, we must live by those values -- not merely mouthing the words but living and breathing them in our daily actions. One month after joining Depot, Jimmy Ardell sat with me in a hotel lobby in New Jersey. "It is your responsibility to carry on the culture," he said. "Me? I just started," I responded. But Jimmy was right. It is our responsibility as leaders to perpetuate the culture and values of the organization, to share the standards we live by.

In a period of high growth and change, it can be hard to preserve company values and culture. Over time, and with an influx of new employees, company values can be lost. When a company fails to recruit people who share its values or can become indoctrinated into the culture, a good culture can be corrupted. One person can destroy a department. However, if a company is committed to its values, it will seek out people who share those values.

Values and Ethics

The Harvard Business School asked over 800 MBAs and executives what our future business leaders should be taught. By a wide margin, the most frequent answer was morals, values and ethics. Many would argue that values must be taught in the home; that developing character is the responsibility of parents, pastors and teachers. The cynics would say it is too late to teach adults right from wrong.

"Can ethics be taught?" is the question Dr. Hoffman of CBE has spent his 25-year career trying to answer.

In his book, Ethics Matters , Hoffman writes, "Too many employees are not receiving any grounding in values from their home, their church, their school or their community." He argues that, like it or not, corporate America has taken on the job of teaching values to its people, a sociological sea change that is as widespread as it is necessary.

Corporate America is uncomfortable assuming this responsibility, but employees are not entering organizations firmly grounded in their values. A 2000 KPMG study showed that 76% of employees have observed unlawful or unethical conduct on the job.'

Four Generations Apart

"Generation X is entering more turbulent waters
than our generation faced.
They must be prepared to contribute and to serve."

-- Fred Ball

As leaders we face the challenge of connecting company values to a diverse workforce. To attract, retain and motivate four very different generations of workers, we must understand their unique perspectives and the national events that shaped their values. To maximize performance, the four generations need to work together in harmony, bridging the generational divide through shared values.

The "Matures" generation, totaling 61.8 million, were born between 1909 and 1945. They lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Most of them grew up poor and were lifted to post war prosperity by The New Deal and the GI Bill of Rights. We boomers grew up hearing austerity stories from our Depression era parents.

When we were younger, we called them the "old guard," resenting them for standing between us and changing the world. Now we appreciate their work ethic, reliability and company loyalty. We, the boomers, along with the Matures, have, for better or worse, created the workplace of today.

Matures value commitment, shared sacrifice, financial and social conservatism. They respect authority and believe in working their way to the top. They worked hard to pay the bills and put food on the table. They felt fortunate to have jobs, especially if they had a good job that could send us to college and on to a better life.

The boomer generation faces different challenges and expectations. We face tremendous pressure to achieve. We want to be successful and rack up all the prizes: the big house, the luxury car, the 401(k) war chest. And in this race to succeed, some of us have lost our values along the way.

The Boomers

"I often think about what my father would have said
if he had lived to see my success."

-- John Thomas Mentzer

My generation, the baby boomers, were born from 1946 to 1964. The baby boom began in 1946 when the World War II veterans came home and lasted until 1964, when the birth rate began to decline. N.A. Barnett, for example, contributed to the postwar population increase. When he came home from serving in World War II in 1946, he and wife Therese had seven children in ten years.

There are 76.8 million baby boomers; an enormous population bulge which is still being digested. We continue to transform all elements of society. We competed fiercely at every life stage -- in the classroom for grades, for our first jobs and every rung up the corporate ladder. As a generation, we boomers value idealism, individualism and self-improvement. We are largely defined by our work and our endless quest for self-actualization.

Because the baby boom generation spans so many birth years, it can be difficult to point to a defining moment. Boomers attitudes are influenced by where they were born on the time continuum between '46 and '64 and their age during the national events that shaped our country -- Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, John F. Kennedy's assassination and Watergate. Their birth date (the Vietnam draft ended in 1972) helped to determine if they became a hippie, served in Vietnam or dodged the draft. Those born after 1960 missed most of the defining moments all together and came of age in the vacuity of the mid 1970s and consumerism of the roaring 1980s.

I was born in 1961, toward the tail end of the baby boom. I grew up in a country eager to be carefree, to put the bitterness and division of Vietnam behind.

The youngest of my generation are just now hitting their stride, turning 36 this year*. They are at their peak earning, power and parenting years. At age 56, the oldest of the boomers are, shockingly, entering their pre-retirement years. Boomers in the middle are facing empty nests and issues of maturation and mortality.

*Editor's Note: This article was written in 2003.

Gen X

"Saying 'whatever' is a malaise."
-- Heber MacWilliams

It is Generation X, born 1965-1978 with a population of only 52.4 million that gives the boomers the most headaches. They are certainly the most criticized generation. The boomers complain that Gen Xers have no work ethic, are disloyal and self-centered. We gripe that they expect to rocket to the top, to enjoy all the perks of power, money and prestige without paying their dues. We whine that they don't respect their elders -- then clap our hands over our mouths, amazed that we sound just like our parents -- amazed that we have become someone's elders. We smugly predict Gen X will morph into our boomer likeness once saddled with mortgages and family obligations, just as the hippies turned yuppies in the 1980s.

The Dichotomy of Gen Y

"We baby boomers basically destroyed the world.
We created latchkey kids, urban deterioration, crack and downsizing;
and we polluted the water and air. We were just about consumption.
Gen Y comes along and says, "Wait a second, I've got to fix some of this."

-- Patrick Adams, quoted in Credit Union Management

It is too early to tell how Gen Y, sometimes called the echo boomers, will turn out. Born between 1979 and 2001 with 77.6 million members; the first wave is just now entering the workforce. Early reports are hopeful — Gen Y values neo-traditionalism, technological adeptness and a compartmentalized work and life.

A recent study showed that Gen Y workers are more dutiful and dedicated than Gen Xers, expressing loyalty and strong values systems.

Gen Y is an oddly divided generation — large numbers protest globalization and the International Monetary Fund while equally large numbers compete fiercely for admission to top Ivy League schools.

Of course, people don't fall into tidy categories. They refuse to be neatly defined and packaged by the media. Rather, the generations overlap. Even a few years difference in birth date affects perceptions. Attitudes wash over from one generation to the next.

Understanding Gen X

"Generation X is wearing me out.
Their values are warped from growing up
with no parents in the home.
They wreak havoc in the organization."

-- Harriet Seward

The combination of maturing boomers, soon to start retiring and the significantly smaller Gen X presents a dramatically shrinking workforce. When the economy improves, the talent wars will continue for many years.

Because there are so few of them, our challenge as leaders is to understand and accommodate Gen X'ers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of people in the labor force between the ages of 25 and 44 will decrease by 3.7 million between 1998 and 2008. By contrast between 1978 and 1988, the same age group in the labor force increased by 10.7 million.

The Harvard Management Update predicts that U.S. labor markets will remain relatively tight for the next 20 years. To recruit and retain the best of Gen X we must speak to and support their values. To understand Gen X we need to begin by looking in the mirror.

Our generation (boomers) came of age in the "greed is good" mentality of the roaring 80s. We had to have it all and have it at once. If we weren't happy, it was easy to change jobs, change spouses, and change our lives. In those self-centered times we raised a generation of children on television and divorce. On Sundays, we were too worn out from work to take them to church. Now they are grown up and entering the workforce. No one has taught them values.

Why Gen X Doesn't Want To Be Boomers

"There is a transition and some resentment going on today
between the old and new generations.
The baby boomers are moving into pre-retirement.
We try to share our experience with Gen X,
but it falls on deaf ears."

-- Ted Fancher

When I guest lecture at Western Kentucky University, I tell the college students how the boomers perceive them. I recite the litany of stereotypical complaints: Gen X lacks ambition and loyalty, they choose recreation over carving out a career, they have a low work ethic, they won't commit. "The first time a Gen X worker didn't show up, we drove up and down the highway, thinking they had been in an accident," I tell them, "Gen Xers will simply abandon a job and never call to let you know they're not lying dead in a ditch."

But when I listen to Gen X perceptions of the boomers, it is equally unflattering. They don't want to grow up to be like us. They don't want to repeat our mistakes.

Our generation believed that our family's happiness came from financial security. Success was defined as rising through the ranks and grabbing the brass ring. We believed we were being good providers for our children by working endless hours and weekends, by foregoing vacations. We thought company loyalty would benefit our family so we agreed to relocate frequently and make sacrifices to keep our feet firmly planted on the corporate ladder. But the recession of the early 1990s wiped out entire layers of management. Our children watched and realized we had kept an unfair bargain.

They don't want to grow up to be like us, and they don't want their kids to grow up without parenting. Many of Gen X grew up as latchkey kids with divorced, workaholic parents. Television's surrealistic programming substituted for solid parenting. This lack of parental involvement produced a generation that is cynical, independent and self-sufficient. "I don't want my child raised by television," one young man said firmly.

The first wave of Gen X college graduates entered the workforce in the recession of the early 1990s when downsizing, lay-offs and staff reductions first became common. Many saw their parents and older colleagues lose their jobs after years of loyal service, leaving them skeptical and disloyal toward organizations.

These young adults watched us struggle through job anxiety and failure. "It is better to work for myself," the students tell me. "Better to call my own shots, to live where I want to live, and to work only to make a living."

Recently, I wrote an article for Entrepreneur magazine on the courage it takes to remain an entrepreneur in our difficult economy. The magazine guidelines dictated that my interview subjects had to be less than 35 years of age. I panicked – how would I find these young entrepreneurs? I sent out about a dozen emails requesting interview leads.

Within a week I was flooded with interview subjects -- young, smart and successful, all in their early 30s. I found that Gen X has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Today, twenty-five percent of small businesses are headed by entrepreneurs under 34.

I didn't start my business until I was 39 -- by the time I finished my interviews with bright, successful, ambitious young entrepreneurs I was the one who felt like a slacker!

Gen X - Working To Live

"For my son's generation, the job is a means to an end.
They achieve goals outside of work.
My son dropped out of Georgia Tech to valet park.
For him, the job is a necessity to get the money
to do what he wants. That is a waste of a good mind.
But maybe when we re-evaluate our own lives,
maybe we're the ones who are wrong.
Maybe they have it right."

-- Talley Jones

Gen Xers are unwilling to sacrifice life and family for a career. They are not willing to climb the corporate ladder when they feel the rungs are crumbling. They work to live, not live to work, valuing leisure time, recreation and family above career success, promotions or transfers. A study by Gross and Scott found that Gen Xers see little value in material possessions for which their parents worked, preferring to spend more time with friends and family. They would prefer to finish in second place if it meant having more time for recreation, travel and non-career goals.

This generation has a strong desire to balance work and life for a better quality of life. They will push for a compressed workweek, flextime, telecommuting, leaves and sabbaticals to juggle family responsibilities.

A September 2001 study, by Catalyst, of 1,300 Gen X professionals asked which of the following values and goals were extremely important." The results:

  • To have a loving family. 84%
  • To enjoy life. 79%
  • To obtain and share companionship with family and friends. 72%
  • To establish a relationship with a significant other. 72%
  • To have a variety of responsibilities. 22%
  • To earn a great deal of money. 21%
  • To become an influential leader. 16%
  • To become well known 6%

The same study, taken ten or fifteen years earlier with boomers, would have shown far different priorities. If we are to bridge this generation values gap we must understand and respect Gen Xers' values.

Making The Hard Choices

"I try to preach to Gen X and Y to put in the effort,
make a contribution and be a team player.
People have to respect you —
you can't force your way up the ladder.
It's effort, contribution and teamwork
— and then patience."

-- Tim Barber

After years of talking to hundreds of college students, I believe Gen X will rewrite the rules for business and redefine success on their own terms. I am hopeful that they will be better parents than our generation.

Recently I asked an evening class of business students, all bright and ambitious, all working full time and taking night classes, to make a hard choice. Would they rather work for Company A, making less money but living a fuller life with family and friends or choose an accelerated career with Company B? With one exception, the students chose Company A.

I had to stop them from pouncing on the one student who chose Company B. The students justified their choice with stories of their parent's downsizing and absentee parenting.

 Company A:

 Company B:

 $600,000 per year $3 billion per year.
 Annual salary $45,000 per year. Annual salary $85,000 per year.
 Work 50 hours per week. Work 80 hours per week.
 No travel. Travel 3 to 5 days per week.
 Live close to family. Relocate / 10 hours drive

If we can look beyond our own generational blinders to understand what drives Gen X behavior, designing a retention program is not that different from any other generation.

Gen X demands interesting work and needs daily praise and recognition. Since they don't believe in climbing the ladder, they want to make a difference from day one. We must give them a tool kit of skills, offer up-to-date training to make them more marketable during the next downturn. We must tap into their talents and give them timely and constructive feedback, including our expectations for a strong, consistent work ethic. This doesn't mean the boomers should pander to Gen Xers' every passing fancy. It does mean treating them with less exasperation and more recognition that we don't have all of the answers. Boomer leaders sometimes become surrogate parents for Gen X – they respond by becoming remarkably loyal to the leader but not to the company.

To attract and keep the best, regardless of their generation, we must support their values. It is their energy and commitment that gives your company a competitive edge. When people become clear in their values, they search for a company that matches their values. As a leader you must help your people clarify their values.

By understanding their priorities, they'll become more decisive, confident and responsible. And unless they are clear about their personal values, they'll have no way of judging if the corporate values agree with their own.

Can One Person Make A Difference?

"Yes, if you're in the right organization that values integrity. If not, you're nothing but a nuisance." -- Harriet Seward

"But wait," you argue, "I am just one person. I can't change the company."

But you can change you. You can change your department. Every organization is made up of a mosaic of departments, each with its own culture and storehouse of stories, each working toward achieving the organization's overarching objectives. The people you lead know your values. They see you day in and day out, handling details and making split second decisions. They will forgive your small failings.

One person can make a difference. The level and impact of difference is dependent on the leadership position. The CEO is responsible for setting the values and vision of the organization. But you can build a departmental culture based on values by telling your people what the organization stands for, what it is trying to achieve and what is in it for them. Begin by becoming crystal clear on who you are, what you believe and what you value.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Winning Your Way, Inc. ©2003.

Article Source:

Winning Without Losing Your Way: Character-Centered Leadership
by Rebecca Barnett.

book cover: Winning Without Losing Your Way: Character-Centered Leadership by Rebecca Barnett.Our headlines have been filled daily with revelations of accounting fraud, corporate corruption and billion dollar equity losses that have wiped out retirement dreams at home and disrupted financial markets around the world. Clearly, business ethics has failed Corporate America. How can you protect your company's earnings, stock and reputation? How can you carry a culture of character throughout your organization? How can we, ordinary business leaders restore confidence in corporate leadership and faith in our financial markets? The answer is not what but who. The answer is you and me. We can create a company culture where it matters to take a measure of a leader's character.

Info/Order this book.

About the Author

Rebecca BarnettRebecca Barnett is the founder of Winning Your Way, Inc., specializing in keynote presentations and seminars on character-centered leadership. Rebecca has more than a dozen years of executive experience for America's most admired retailers including The Home Depot and Dollar General. She holds a M.A. in Organizational Communication from Western Kentucky University, where she is an adjunct professor and a B.S. in business from The Ohio State University.

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