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Closing the generational divide in healthcare

April 23rd, 2014

by Darlene A. Cunha

By now, anyone working in a large organization knows how it feels to work alongside four generations. This doesn't just occur at work; in fact, with more people living longer, this happens at family events as well. Each generation seeks out their counterpart, and then settles down to reminisce about the past, as well as any challenges they may be facing today. Let me explain.

I was at a family gathering this past weekend, and couldn't help but notice the distinct separation of the ages. It reminded me of work. The "veterans" (born 1922-1945) sat at the kitchen table reminiscing about their lives and the years devoted to family and work. Of course, this generation believed the company came first.

There were stories of starting at the bottom, paying their dues and working their way up through experience and seniority. They recalled the best education was on-the-job training. There was no "warm and fuzzy" in this generation. Their management style was firm and direct, and you better believe there was a face-to-face or phone call if anything wet awry. They raised their children the same way.


In the living room were the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). I fall into this category myself, and anyone who knows me will attest that I have a strong work ethic. As we shared stories of family and work, it was apparent we all believed strongly in education. When it came to management, we were all about meetings, feeling part of a team, and welcomed our annual review as a great source of feedback.

We're available 24/7, check and leave voicemail messages, email at least twice a day, and answer every voice mail or email by the end of the day. After all, it's only polite. This generation always arrives early to meetings, checks their email on their laptops while they wait for the others to arrive. I chuckled at how far I had come over the years, and how I had changed throughout my career.

Then there was the group of young adults who congregated on the porch, the Gen X-ers, (born 1965-1980.) I could hear the discussion, as the windows were open on this beautiful, sunny spring day. My younger cousin was talking about her job at a large sales company. She was straightforward and a bit fierce as she talked about a new position she applied for, and how her education and creativity should count for something.

Despite her being at this company for less than a year, she believed she shouldn't have to start at the bottom if she brought new ideas to the table. She said she worked hard for this company, but wouldn't hesitate to switch jobs if a better offer came along. Work-life balance was important to her, and the others agreed. This generation believes people will produce the best results if they're given the freedom to be creative, and when it comes to communication, email trumps the phone call.

You might know the Gen X employee as the one who shows up with their Starbucks in hand, dressed business casual, on their cell phone giving instructions to the babysitter. When they are off the phone, the Boomer starts to chat with others about their weekend, and then quickly opens their laptop to take care of some email. Or you might have witnessed the new guy call to ask if it's OK if he attends a meeting via Skype. Sound familiar? This generation wants to be able to work from home, take days off and come in at odd hours, as long as they get the work done. Relationships over loyalty--they could care less about the company, but will work hard for people who they consider "friends."

After awhile, I looked for my three sons and found them in the recreation room in the basement. They were hanging out with their cousins and friends who were all about the same age. This group is the Millennials (born 1981-2000), otherwise known as Generation Y members. You know them when you see them. They tap on their smartphones and stroll into work late. My youngest son, who turned 22 in December, cannot grasp the working world of my era. He believes if you have a great idea the results will follow. He wants to "do his own thing." He is fine with going to work, until he gets bored. He believes working from home is as good as the office as long as the work gets done.

The group talked about texting, and all agreed it was the best way to keep in touch. They seldom if ever check voicemail, let alone leave one. They are also great multitaskers. For example, my eldest son can type a report for work, tweet, respond to email and look something up on the internet, all at the same time. I'm still baffled over that one.

As I reflected on the four generations in the house, it reminded me of the challenges I face in the workplace every day as a leader. How do leaders today make the work place "work" with four generations? In the ideal intergenerational workplace, every team member brings the best qualities of their generation to increase productivity, improve creativity and boost morale.

Although we cannot expect generational gaps to close overnight, there are some proven managerial techniques for building bridges across the generational divide.

  • Start a mentoring program. Baby Boomers and Gen Y-ers value relationships. Boomers want the team to feel like a "family" and Gen Y-ers want to be surrounded by "friends." By becoming a mentor, the Boomer can capitalize on her experience, while the Gen Y-er can get feedback about his ideas from someone he trusts.
  • A successful intergenerational workplace must strike a balance between structure and independence. You must break down all barriers of accessibility. Younger generations need continuous feedback from their managers, and want to know there is an "open door policy" to the CEO if they have a question.
  • Drop the old rules altogether: "Always return a phone call." "Always send a thank you note." "Always be available for the boss." Along those same lines, get over the idea of fairness. A lot of older workers complain that the younger generations are favored and haven't paid their dues. Fairness is not as important as building successful workplace relationships.

In the end, building a solid bridge requires both sides meet each other halfway. If the older worker prefers phone calls and the younger workers texts, then compromise over email. When everybody gets something he or she wants, everybody wins. That said; I'm still trying to adjust to the abbreviated text messages from my sons, when all along I was hoping for a phone call.

Darlene A. Cunha, MMHC, BSN, RN, is an accomplished senior healthcare executive, who focuses on population health management and the patient caregiver experience.


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