When it comes to discussing the modern workplace – especially the technology workplace – there is nothing more divisive than the debate about which generation of workers, Gen X (those born between 1960 and 1980) or Gen Y (those born between 1981 and 2000), provides greater value. The discussion, which is worthy of exploration, seems to always devolve into Gen Xers bemoaning their younger counterparts’ sense of entitlement, while Gen Yers (also called "Millennials") whine about how Gen X just doesn’t get it. But just as unruly teenagers must coexist with their oppressive, out-of-touch parents, Gen X and Gen Y need to learn to get along – and somehow get some work done.
If you believe the media, Gen X and Gen Y are at war in the workplace. You have to admit that it makes for a great story: Older generations of workers feeling threatened by a younger (and cheaper) workforce that is displacing them in an uncertain economy, grasping at anything that makes them seem more valuable, that will make them immune to layoffs. Meanwhile, younger workers doing anything they can to prove that their familiarity with technology will outweigh actual real-world experience so they can kickstart a career in an excruciatingly scrappy job market. (For some background reading, check out Millennials and Tech Jobs: A Match Made in Heaven?)
Indeed, this scenario might very well exist, perpetuating the idea that Gen X and Gen Y actually have competing motives. But that isn’t the whole truth, because it suggests that there’s only room at the table for one – either Gen X or Gen Y. The truth is that the war between Gen X and Gen Y isn’t so much a war as a struggle for coexistence. Because despite all the frustration both groups might feel for each other, their strengths and weaknesses actually complement each other and help to create a more efficient workplace ecosystem.
Gen X and Gen Y, Kumbaya
Consider the perennial example of social media in the workplace. There are plenty of statistics that illustrate how Gen X workers – and their older peers – are leading the way when it comes to adopting social media technology and are the fastest-growing demographic among social media practitioners. This might suggest that Gen X is at least as adept at technology and innovation as the celebrated digital natives of Gen Y. On the flip side, a few years ago, Gen Y was the fastest-growing demographic – in fact, the only demographic – that was adopting social media. What that means is that now that nearly all of Gen Y has adopted social media, there’s no longer room for adoption growth. This suggests at least the possibility that Gen Xers learned about social media from Gen Y.
The plot thickens.
The Tech Innovation Relay Race
It turns out that, practically speaking, the technology "war" between generations is really more of a race. And if the race is for adopting and learning new technologies faster, younger generations will always win. Each successive generation has a knack for picking up new technologies and familiarizing themselves with them, adapting them to meet their needs, finding new ways to use them, and, ultimately, innovating them – or, sometimes, scrapping those new trends entirely and creating something even better. It is this innovation from younger generations that often propels technology and, as a result, business.
But the race doesn’t end simply with ideation, innovation or even adoption; the race ends when people (or in this case, businesses) see value in trying something new. It’s more of a relay race and Gen Y can’t complete it without the help of their bosses and mentors, who can carry the baton over the finish line.
Gen X and older workers, who over the course of years or decades have been entrusted with responsibility and decision-making power, usually have a number of successes and failures under their belts, as well as first-hand knowledge of what has worked and what hasn’t worked – and why. More than just a strong argument for an idea, more experienced workers demand evidence as well as thoughtful research and analysis in order to build a compelling business case. At the end of the day, it’s older generations who likely have the decision-making power to bring the idea to life – or kill it in its tracks. That’s a power that most Gen Y workers don’t have, because it’s just too early in their careers. (Gen Y has faced some major criticism in the workplace. Read more in Generation Y, I Think We Have Problems.)
As a member of Gen Y, I’ve already run this relay race several times in my career. When I entered the workforce full time in 2008, I worked at a small B2B tech startup that relied exclusively on traditional sales and marketing. Having used MySpace in grade school and latched onto Facebook and Twitter immediately in college, I felt completely comfortable with social networks. At the time, using social media for business was a wild new frontier and many of the platforms that are household names today were still virtually unknown, but I, like many of my peers, suspected that social media would become a valuable channel for business communications and marketing
Unfortunately, my degree didn’t equip me with the robust business vocabulary specific to my company and industry, which I discovered is exactly what I needed to convey the business value of my idea to devote more time to social media marketing. My boss, a Gen Xer and an experienced marketer and salesperson, wanted to know more. He wasn’t going to blindly throw his support behind an idea without a strategic plan in place, so he asked for a detailed proposal that would explain how time is better spent doing social media marketing than cold calling and sending out mailers. So just about three months into my first job, I delivered my first proposal, a whopping 20 pages that provided step-by-step detail about what I thought the company needed to do, how we needed to do it and the potential benefits and risks involved. I even highlighted case studies to support my claims.
My boss took it to our baby boomer CEO for approval and, with his blessing, we launched our first social media campaign, which I spearheaded. But here’s the thing: Even though it was my idea, I can’t take credit for the whole thing. If it wasn’t for the guidance and mentoring of my boss, I might not have developed a comprehensive strategy and the metrics by which to measure success. And, without the approval of management, it never would have seen the light of day.
It’s a Common Goal, People
Committing to a collaborative "relay race" in which both Gen X and Gen Y are aligned and moving toward a common goal is incredibly important to the health of workplace environments where innovation and efficiency are encouraged. So, while younger Gen Y workers are often decried for being overly confident, pushing boundaries and questioning authority, companies should look to harness these traits and channel this energy into innovation. This type of innovation-exploration comes naturally for younger workers and it helps them understand their work and where they want to move in their careers. As they navigate their first months or years on the job, they may discover new tools or processes that might be of value. Collaborating on these ideas with a trusted and experienced mentor helps younger workers determine ROI, understand the unique metrics for success and anticipate the roadblocks they are likely to encounter. Collaboration also offers Gen X mentors an opportunity to help Gen Y workers grow more quickly in their roles and be more productive and valuable (and happier!) members of their team.
If the idea has sufficient evidence to suggest it will be a success, Gen X workers should solicit help from their Gen Y colleagues to drive it to completion. Together, they can analyze the results and better understand how to move forward and be more innovative in the future. If it’s a success, they can both share in the glory of a job well done; if it’s a failure (AKA "learning experience") they can both discuss where it went wrong – without pointing fingers.
In the end, there is no war between Gen X and Gen Y because neither generation can move forward successfully without the help of the other. Progress is all about collaboration between generations of employees in order to create more dynamic and innovative businesses. When done well, that means more profit. And if there’s anything that both generations can agree on, that must be it.