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Generational differences can be a source of workplace conflict in the best of times, and in today's workplace, the potential for conflict seems particularly acute. Between a sluggish job market, structural changes in the employment landscape, and a logjam at the top caused by Baby Boomers who can't or won't retire, many younger workers feel like they're not getting the same opportunities as those who came before them. In this climate of dissatisfaction, recurring issues such as media preferences and communication styles can become magnified, as the generations get snarkier and snarkier with one another. ("Baby Boomers are preachy and technologically obsolete!" "Millennials have no work ethic and need constant handholding!")

On the plus side, these conflicts and controversies can provide some great opportunities for exploring the factors that influence communication success in the workplace. Here are some thought-provoking questions to trigger discussion with your students:

  1. Do students feel like they "belong" to their generation? For example, people born in the early 1960s are often classified as Baby Boomers based on birth year, but not all of them feel a strong sense of kinship with that generation.*
  2. How do students perceive the next-older generation (those likely to be holding the jobs they want to get) and the next-younger generation (those who will be eyeing their jobs)?
  3. Do students perceive intergenerational conflict to be a real problem in the workplace? In society as a whole?
  4. How important are personal appearance (including body art), technology and media preferences, and communication style—three issues that come up frequently in discussions of generational conflict?

Workforce Management has just started an interesting series of articles about changes in the workplace from one generation to the next, starting with the 1950s. These articles would make good reading material to support a class discussion on intergenerational conflict.

*While there are no official labels or year boundaries for the generations, we find the following definitions to be useful:

The Radio Generation (born between 1925 and 1945)
Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)
Generation Y or Millennials (born 1981 to 1995)
Generation Z or the Net Generation (born 1996 and after)