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When Generations Collide
Colleges try to prevent age-old culture clashes as four distinct groups meet in the workplace
In an office at Western Technical College, the under-30 crowd creates funny, mock videos to reward
themselves for a job well done. Or they throw a pizza party to celebrate. That bothers some of their older
colleagues at the two-year Wisconsin college, who complain that the young folks should be working, not
Denise Vujnovich, who fields those complaints as Western's vice president for student services and
college relations, worries that too many baby boomers just don't get it: The younger generations get their
work done, she says; they just do it differently.
It's not that the younger set has it all figured out. A twentysomething employee at one university didn't
think twice about e-mailing the entire campus when he was trying to sell his car. The problem is, the
generations don't always understand one another. And in the academic workplace — where, for the first
time in recent memory, four generations have converged — that can create serious culture clashes.
It is happening across college campuses — in offices as diverse as admissions, student affairs, legal
affairs, and technology. And it is especially striking in the faculty ranks, where generational challenges
have extra significance amid recruiting efforts, tenure evaluations, and the changing definition of what
constitutes important faculty work.
As members of Generations X and Y face a workplace dominated by boomers, they are all starting to
chafe. Some colleges are having trouble attracting, managing, and sometimes retaining people younger
than 35. Members of the younger generations grew up watching their parents sacrifice for their careers,
and they want something different: balance and freedom and autonomy. And they won't hesitate to
switch jobs or leave academe if it means more-palatable working conditions. Many baby boomers,
meanwhile, don't understand why someone would leave the office at 5 p.m. when there is always more
to do.
How do colleges handle this generational dilemma? As in other sectors of the workplace, where similar
issues are festering, good communication can help people better understand one another, say those in the
trenches. But some experts argue that more-substantial structural and policy changes are needed to avert
a looming crisis — an anticipated dearth of young people interested in rising through the academic
Faculty demographics are not easy to forecast, as academics saw when experts' predictions in the late
1980s of a huge faculty shortage due to retirements failed to materialize. Still, some experts are adamant
that academe will have to accommodate the next generation's preferences.
"A major leadership gap is coming up," warns Pamela Cox-Otto, a marketing expert and former college
vice president who writes about generational marketing in academe. She argues that colleges need to
From the issue dated July 18, 2008
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stress flexibility, technology, diversity, and work-life balance. "It's about a real commitment to cultural
change," she says.
While stereotypes do not fit every individual, there are traits and preferences that generally apply to each
of the generations, say those who have studied different age groups. Members of the oldest generation,
born between around 1925 and 1946, are often called "traditionalists." They are known as hard-working,
are used to taking direction, and tend to have strict moral codes. In a 2008 survey, "World of Work,"
conducted by the staffing agency Randstad, 86 percent of the members of this elder generation described
themselves as ethical, compared with 58 percent of Generation Y respondents.
Baby boomers, born between around 1946 and 1964, dominate today's academic work force,
representing at least half of the nation's faculty members. They typically display loyalty to their
institution, an assumption that working overtime is a given, and a commitment to making a difference
by working together. In the Randstad survey, 78 percent of baby boomers described themselves as
having a strong work ethic, as opposed to 53 percent of the members of Generation Y and 68 percent of
those in Generation X.
Gen Xers, often noted for their cynicism, tend to care more about autonomy, seek a balance between
work and home, and look out for their own interests first. Born between around 1964 and 1982, they
have been dubbed the "Me Generation." And finally, just now entering the academic workplace are the
oldest members of Generation Y, also known as "Millennials." Born between around 1982 and the late
1990s, they grew up with technology at their fingertips. While similar to Xers, they are known to be
more optimistic, fun seeking, and flexible, but they are also the most coddled of all.
Of course, generalizations need to be tempered by recognizing individual workers' actual habits and
personalities, which may or may not be directly related to when they were born. But just knowing a few
things about each generation can help cut down on needless workplace battles, says Patrick Cataldo,
associate dean for executive education at the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State
University at University Park. He teaches business leaders how to manage across generational gaps.
When a twentysomething in Mr. Cataldo's office wanted to buy a Mac computer instead of the office's
standard PC, Mr. Cataldo stopped to think about it. "If I hadn't taught this, the categorical answer would
have been no," says Mr. Cataldo, a baby boomer whose inclination was to stick to institutional practices.
Instead, he asked the young woman to explain her choice — she argued the technology better served her
needs — and he found her argument compelling. Mr. Cataldo ordered the computer, and everyone ended
up happy.
As chief information officer at Lynn University, in Florida, Christian G. Boniforti, 35, occasionally
interacts with senior faculty members. After distributing a campus survey about technology use, he
learned that some of them were having trouble keeping up with changing technologies. So he had his
staff quietly call them individually and offer assistance, so they wouldn't feel singled out. Among the
success stories is one professor who used to be a complete technophobe but now uses multimedia clips
and posts assignments to Blackboard for his classes.
While the twentysomethings in his office don't lack technology skills, says Mr. Boniforti, they
sometimes have trouble understanding that less is more. For example, they don't hesitate to shoot him a
barrage of e-mail messages, while an older staffer will send one well-thought-out memo. Nor can he
depend upon his younger staffers to show up on time for meetings, or to dress appropriately. (One
employee insisted on wearing his Miami Heat basketball jersey.) Mr. Boniforti holds social gatherings
so different generations can learn from one another without pressure. Apparently some do. At a recent
presentation, one of the younger employees, usually dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, sported a tie.
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When Marc M. Camille needed someone to manage the integration of a new software system at Loyola
College in Maryland, he chose a baby boomer. Mr. Camille, 41, vice president for enrollment
management and communications, tries to match generational strengths to specific tasks, while keeping
in mind that people's personalities must be balanced into the equation, too. He knew a particular boomer
would see the job through to completion, though, no matter what it took. But for a redesign of the
college's Web site, he turned to the office's younger members. "It's easier for them to put themselves in
the mind-set of 17- and 18-year-olds," says Mr. Camille.
Lillian C.S. Selby, a 24-year-old graphic designer at Loyola, proves his point. She recently designed a
publicity campaign for a student group that was collecting donated clothing and furniture for charity.
She used brightly colored icons and flashy graphics to attract her peers. "We can multitask," she says of
her generation, "but we have the attention span of a gnat, so we need bold colors."
Keeping generational quirks in mind when assigning projects is one thing, but some administrators are
getting fed up with having to cater to everyone. W. Kent Barnds, vice president for admissions and
enrollment at Augustana College, in Illinois, understands that Gen Xers want to know how an
assignment will matter to them. But sometimes, he says, they just need to get the job done because it's
their job. "We can't recraft all our work to make it matter individually to the 'Me Generation,'" says Mr.
Barnds. That's where the boomers come in, he says: They can model a work ethic. To make that happen,
Barnds has broken his admissions-office staff into intergenerational teams.
"I'm forcing a structure where collaboration and conversation have to occur," he says.
Perhaps most challenging of all is the question of how to bridge generations of faculty members, who
set much of the tone on a campus. In departments where senior scholars hold power over new hires and
tenure cases, an us-versus-them mentality can develop. Older professors can become disgruntled when
they see the comparatively high salaries that newly hired professors demand. And in disciplines where
the intellectual focus is shifting, the old guard can feel it must protect its turf. Take the field of
psychology, which has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Barry Schwartz, a professor of
psychology at Swarthmore College for the last 35 years, says that cognitive neuroscience now dominates
his field, whereas when he was trained, it was all about behavioralism. Not every department has made
the transition smoothly. "There have been some unpleasant battles," says Mr. Schwartz. "People tend to
get wedded to what they learn." He says his own small department has been able to avoid generational
clashes. "If you have the attitude you can learn from young people, it creates an open environment," he
says. If some older scholars don't want to keep pace, he says, they should consider administrative jobs.
Another point of tension is interdisciplinary studies. Cathy A. Trower, a senior researcher at Harvard
University's Graduate School of Education, who studies junior-faculty preferences, says boomers are
often skeptical of nontraditional faculty appointments. Gen Xers, she says, like the creative freedom of
an interdisciplinary institute, where they can easily collaborate with diverse groups of scholars. "They
realize breakthroughs don't happen if you talk to the same people," says Ms. Trower. This can be a
challenge for boomers who want to evaluate faculty members in a specific discipline using traditional
parameters, she says.
Mr. Schwartz worries that the professoriate is becoming less attractive over all to the younger
generations. As grant money becomes harder to obtain, particularly in the sciences, he is finding that
younger people are choosing industry instead. He suggests colleges find ways to create more part-time
positions, with reduced expectations, that offer a better work-life balance. Ms. Trower says colleges
would indeed do well to think creatively about job structures. Since Gen Xers are more comfortable
bouncing from job to job, colleges could make it easier to get on and off the tenure track or even in and
out of academe altogether.
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Short of restructuring faculty positions, colleges can still make their workplaces friendlier to younger
academics. Jeffrey Nunokawa, an English professor at Princeton University whose boyish looks belie
his 49 years, is known for connecting with younger people. He has his own Facebook page, which he
uses as a teaching and writing experiment. "Why not go where the people are?" he says.
He believes experienced professors can help younger ones by being approachable and willing to serve as
informal mentors. Hierarchical differences, he says, are emphasized more than they need to be. He tries
to help junior faculty members with their academic work by "suggesting" rather than "prescribing," and
offering practical tips about getting published. "It's our duty," he says.
There is one final responsibility of senior scholars, Mr. Nunokawa says, and that is to eventually let the
younger generations take over: "You've just got to know when to have the good grace to move over and
let someone else drive."
With four generations working side by side in today's academic workplace, it helps to understand who is
in the office next door. Here are some generalizations that, while they may not accurately describe every
baby boomer or Gen Xer on a campus, can be used as a rough generational guide. Or perhaps an excuse
to break the ice with a co-worker who might share a fondness for Super Mario Brothers or attendance at
the Silent Generation, veterans
between about 1925 and 1946
Cultural influences:
Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, postwar boom era, GI Bill
Workplace values:
loyalty, recognition, hierarchy, resistance to change
Baby Boomers
the Sandwich Generation (since many take care of both children and aging parents)
between about 1946 and 1964
Cultural influences:
popularization of television, assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Beatles,
first moon walk, Vietnam War, antiwar protests, sexual revolution
Workplace values:
dedication, face time, team spirit
Generation X
the Slacker Generation, the Me Generation
between about 1964 and 1982
Cultural influences:
fall of the Soviet Union, women's-liberation movement, MTV, grunge, rise of
home video games a
nd personal computers, birth of the Internet, dot-com boom and bust
Workplace values:
work-life balance, autonomy, flexibility, informality
Generation Y
between about 1982 and the late 1990s
Cultural influences:
Internet era, September 11 terrorist attacks, cellphones, Columbine High School
massacre, Facebook
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Workplace values:
feedback, recognition, fulfillment, advanced technology, fun
Section: The Academic Workplace
Volume 54, Issue 45, Page B18
© 2008 by
The Chronicle of Higher Education
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