Intergenerational conflict in the workplace: what is the apple of discord?

The workplace of today is characterised by the coexistence of various generations, from Baby Boomers (or even Veterans) to Zoomers, working side to side, and thus being confronted with potential conflictual situations emerging right from their generational differences. But what are the sources of such conflicts?

A study by Urick et al. published in 2016 by the Oxford University Press investigated this phenomenon by interviewing a sample of 56 professionals – 28 of them with a mean age of 29, and 28 with a mean age of 71 – to examine the nature of intergenerational conflict, including the factors affecting it and the strategies employed to handle it. 

Three types of conflict were identified, as well as three strategies used to address them. 

The categories of tension that emerged are:

  • Values-based tensions. These result from the conflict between traditional and progressive ideals, as the younger sample considers the older one to be conservative and less accepting of diversity, while the older sample considers the younger one more politically liberal and less patriotic.
  • Behaviour-based tensions. These are based on the perception that each generational group has of the other one: the younger generation regards of the older one as overinvested in work, reluctant to use technology, and unable to adapt to contemporary media, while the older generation regards the younger one as entitled, taking technology for granted, and unable to communicate effectively.
  • Identity-based tensions. According to this type of conflict, the younger sample feels that the older one wants them to be more work-oriented, whereas the older group believes that the younger one regards them as primarily defined by their work.

The strategies identified to manage intergenerational conflict are instead: 

  • Achievement-oriented strategies. These consist in using the communication style preferred by the other generational group to ease conflict, and in highlighting common objectives achieved to increase trust. 
  • Image-oriented strategies. These involve controlling one’s own image by managing the information shared and “being visible”, which could be by dressing professionally or by being at work during standard office hours.
  • Ego-oriented strategies. These consist in interacting with colleagues from different generations in such a way to protect one’s own personal needs, or in walking away from potential conflictual situations to avoid tensions.

Although the central theme of this article is conflict, the study quoted proved that intergenerational tensions can have a positive side as well. Indeed, when an employee adapts the communication style, makes an effort to be more visible, or focuses on a common goal, in order to avoid conflict, such strategies can lead to better results, increased collaboration, and learning.

Nevertheless, it should be also noted that the abovementioned sources of conflict and resolution strategies may vary from person to person, as they are influenced by the stereotypes and expectations people have for the other generations, which in turn are influenced by contextual elements such as society, media, economy, political events, and personal work or life experiences. So… What about you? Between you and your colleague from another generation, what is the apple of discord?