Atlanta-based Randstad USA’s annual 2008 World of Work survey found that the four generations now in the U.S. workforce—Generation X, Generation Y, baby boomers and "matures" (those born 1900 to 1945)—rarely interact with one another.
That lack of communication, the study found, is keeping key institutional job knowledge held by the boomer generation from filtering down to younger workers.
The isolation among workforce generations is credited to a lack of recognition of the others’ skills or work ethic. According to the Census Bureau, the Gen Y’ers in today’s workforce—born 1980 to 1988—total 79.8 million, which outnumber the baby boomers, or those who were born 1946 to 1964. Those boomers, which total 78.5 million people, are considered the keepers of the institutional job knowledge in companies across the nation.
Randstad conducted the U.S. survey in December and January among 3,494 adults, 1,295 of whom were employers and 2,199 were employees. Employees came from businesses with at least five staffers. Employers sampled were involved in human resources strategies at their companies for at least six months.
Given this scenario, businesses are faced with cultivating more interaction among generations in their workforce, says Eric Buntin, managing director of marketing and operations for Randstad.
"The starting point is for employers to acknowledge and communicate to employees that there is a lack of interaction in the workforce," he says.
Once the employer puts the issue out in the open, says Buntin, the next move is to shuffle its employee deck to blend the generations.
"They need to find ways to create functional work teams to bring employees together," he says.
That doesn’t mean mentoring of younger workers by older workers, says Buntin, but rather collaboration on jobs that makes older and younger workers feel as if they’re both contributing to business goals on new products or handling service issues.
Such collaborative projects, the study suggests, give value to employees’ efforts and cultivate respect and trust between worker generations.
The study found that although boomers have a lot of knowledge and experience to share with Gen Y workers, 51 percent of them and 66 percent of matures reported little or no interaction with their Gen Y colleagues. And the three younger generations reported little or no interaction with matures on the job.
Other key findings include:
Gen Y’s reputation as an overly demanding workplace generation no longer applies; since 2006, they have become more realistic about job expectations.
Gen Y has the lowest expectations among the four generations for "soft" workplace benefits of satisfying work, pleasant work environment, liking the people they work with, challenging work and flexible hours.
Gen Y describes co-workers of their own generation as positive socially but not necessarily competent.
With strong social skills, Gen X has the most potential to bridge the knowledge gap between boomers and Gen Y’ers.
"Stereotyping is real," Buntin says. "If Gen X’ers think their baby boomer colleagues are less flexible—even if they’re not—they believe it."
And although a company may be aware of the need to quell stereotyping and its associated downsides, it’s easier said than done, Buntin says.
"The current pressure for productivity—the pressure for people to do more with less creates that barrier," he says. "Employers need to be aware that people just don’t have time to interact."
Karol Rose, chief marketing officer for Flexpaths, an online provider of flexible work programs, says the key to getting generations to share knowledge is to focus on things they have in common.
"You need to give them common ground so they can begin to understand each other," she says, citing job sharing as one example. "The challenge is managing people. The way we transfer knowledge is very different than it was 20 years ago. "
But infusing cultural changes for more worker collaboration isn’t done overnight in most companies, Rose says.
"Organizations are like a big ship," she says. "They don’t turn easily. But this is a time when they have to become more nimble and proactive, not reactive."
Fostering an attitude of learning from others in a company is a big step, Rose says, in that it can break down barriers to interaction.
She says managers these days have to know how to attract and retain talent, and a key to that is creating a customized work environment for the workers that enables them to perform at optimum levels.
"People are trying to manage their careers and their lives," Rose says. "They can’t do it without flexibility. It’s challenging for organizations, managers and for employees. They don’t understand what’s possible."
Randstad’s Buntin figures things will get worse before they get better.
"The knowledge gap will come, and structurally it will create problems," he says. "It’s that type of pressure that will force changes, just like globalization forced up productivity."