Published 7/1/2009
George V. Russell Jr., MD

Are you an “old coot” or a “young whippersnapper”?

Generational differences have workforce implications

Clashes amongst different generations is nothing new. Parents and children fight the battles daily in households everywhere. It’s a part of growing up.

As children grow into adulthood and find jobs, the battles may begin anew—not at home, but in the workplace. In an orthopaedic practice, the generational differences may be apparent not only among the physicians, but also between physician and staff members.

For a practice to work smoothly, both physicians and staff members must learn the distinctions of the different generations. Everyone must be part of developing a system that maximizes peace, harmony, and productivity. Understanding the differences among the generations is key to learning to work together.

The following four different generations are currently in the workforce:

  • Matures, born prior to 1946
  • Baby Boomers, born from 1946-1964
  • Generation Xers, born from 1965-1979
  • Millennials, born from 1985-2000

Born prior to 1946, many of the Mature generation were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. Their environment was also shaped by rigid hierarchies, adapted to civilian life from military service. The hierarchies demanded that workers “pay their dues,” and submit to rules and regulations silently. The trade off of short-term sacrifice for promised rewards of job security and retirement plans proved a successful model for launching the postwar economy.

Baby Boomers
The children of the hard-working Matures were nurtured on the high expectations of their parents, who had a child-centered focus. As record numbers of Baby Boomers entered the workforce, competition for the best jobs increased. Workers looked for ways to distinguish themselves for the best opportunities. The result was a heightened work ethic that came to define their lives.

Generation Xers
According to Managing the Generation Mix: From Urgency to Opportunity by Carolyn A. Martin, PhD, and Bruce Tulgan, Generation Xers were born during the “most blatantly anti-child phases in U.S. history.” As the most unsupervised generation, Generation Xers were left to take care of themselves and developed an “I’ve-got-to-fend-for-myself” attitude.

This “fend-for-myself” mentality persisted as Generation Xers entered the work force. As Generation Xers questioned the lives and the work ethic of their early Baby Boomer parents, they developed a new definition of success. To these individuals, time is a currency as valuable as money.

Technology has been tremendously empowering for Generation Xers. As they grew up, technology expanded from toys to work tools. Generation Xers frequently have an easier time adapting to work technology than their Baby Boomer parents. As technology has become more pervasive in business operations, the Generation Xers have been able to challenge the master-apprentice system. For the first time in history, the youngest generation controlled a critical aspect of business.

The Millennial Generation was born during a time of tremendous economic expansion and wealth. The parents of many Millennials were born toward the end of the Baby Boomer generation. These parents became obsessed with their children, showered them with attention, continuously bolstered the egos of their Millennial children, and provided constant feedback.

Millennials are similar to Generation Xers in that they are independent and entrepreneurial individuals who relish responsibility and control of their time. Millennials, however, demand immediate feedback and expect to feel a sense of accomplishment hourly. Millennials and Generation Xers, who have grown up creating and mastering technology, frequently challenge the traditional work paradigm.

Members of the Mature and Baby Boomer generations frequently assume that younger generations (Generation Xers and Millennials) will measure success the same way they themselves have. In the view of Matures and Baby Boomers, younger workers should pay their dues and follow the same paths as they did to achieve the same level of success.

Now, however, younger generations (Generation Xers and Millennials) make up the majority of the workforce. True to their upbringing, they are questioning the traditional paradigm. Their familiarity with technology enables them to challenge the older, master-apprentice way of doing business and to demand an opportunity to influence the work place.

Recognizing generational differences is one thing; learning to effectively manage across generational differences is quite another, which a future article in AAOS Now will cover. In the meantime, readers may be interested in following up with one of these texts: Managing the Generation Mix: From Urgency to Opportunity by Carolyn A. Martin, PhD, and Bruce Tulgan (HRD Press, 2006) or Motivating the “What’s in it for me?” Workforce: Managing across the generational divide by Cam Marston (Wiley, 2007).

George V. Russell Jr., MD is a graduate of the AAOS Leadership Fellows Program, who serves on the Practice Management Committee. He can be reached at gvrussell@orthopedics.umsmed.edu