Episode 82: Generation Clash

Show transcript

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…generational conflict between women at work. We all know it’s there, lurking, even if we talk about it behind eachother’s backs…

“I had one assistant who wouldn’t even answer the phone if she didn’t recognize the number. She was so used to screening calls.”

We have different attitudes to communication and perhaps to getting ahead, as well…

“All of the women I’ve worked with have felt like in their own way, from their own perspective, are trying to help, but they’re trying based on the information they have and what things were like when they were coming up through the workplace.”

Coming up…the first of two shows on different generational perspectives at work.

So I’m starting this show with the generational expert. Anne Loehr is a leadership consultant.  She writes quite a bit about women at work and about managing across generations. And like me – she’s Gen X. I’m smack in my mid-forties, right between two much bigger generational cohorts – the baby boomers and the millennials.

Anne says in some parts of the world there will be far less of a pronounced difference in attitude between generations. But in the west, we do have this stratification depending on when we were born and what was going on in the outside world at the time. 

“And the research shows each generation is shaped by 3 types of events: political, technological, and societal.”

And because of that we each have a collective understanding, a particular way of thinking and being…

“So although yes we are all Americans…”

Well, some of us…

“We have differences. We have more similarities than differences but we do have differences in what shaped us. What shaped the boomers, impacted how they see the world and see work, which is different from what shaped Gen X, who were born between 1965 and 1980 which is different from Gen Y, who is born between 1981 to 2001. And if we as leaders, as colleagues, as people in any type of organization can understand that we can then make it be less of ‘oh my God, she’s making me crazy,’ and make it more oh, she’s just doing the Gen X or the Gen Y thing, and we can find ways to leverage those differences instead of pointing our finger at them and thinking they’re bad people.”

She says we just see the world differently. And when we don’t account for those different lenses, we clash.

Lynne Testoni was born at the end of the baby boom. She’s 53, she lives in Sydney, Australia, and she’s a longtime journalist. Right now she’s the managing editor of a trade magazine. And she says her experience of entering the workforce was just really different from her young colleagues’ experience today…

“When I became a journalist not many people did degrees, they came straight from school…they did a cadetship, sort of like an apprenticeship. So we were treated like rubbish, and we had to learn from the ground up, and everyone would correct our work and take us out and yell at us occasionally.”

It wasn’t fun but it was character building. Today the young women she works with come from the most highly educated generation in history.

“In a good way people these days are more qualified, more thoughtful, more mature, they’re older when they start, I was only 18 when I started. I haven’t employed someone out of school for 20 years…so they’re all 22, 23 at least. But I do find in some ways they’re less mature about practical things. Some young people are not good at practical housekeeping things. They don’t know how to wash the dishes or make their own lunches, or budget, or do some of those things I had to learn when I was 18 because I had to live out of home. Most people live at home with their parents till they’re a lot older and that stymies a certain amount of independence I think. And I find because they’re a bit more mollycoddled by their parents – and I’m a parent too so I totally know how that happens – I think they’re a lot more sensitive to criticism.”

She says they could do with a bit of toughening up. But she says there are lots of good things about millennials too.

“I find that particularly they’re less stuck in their ways, they’re not stuck in an old fashioned way of doing things. They can think laterally, they’re more likely to speak up, more confident, I was terrified of speaking to any of these people because as I was yelled at. Now, there’s a more open office, people are more receptive to new ideas and they take on a lot more of the suggestions the younger member of staff have.”

And she says young women just expect more from their employers – and themselves.

“Certainly in my day there were things that as a girl, a female journalist, that I wasn’t allowed to do. My boss wouldn’t let me do the police rounds, I had to do the school rounds, I did weddings, and all those real girly things back then. But now it doesn’t make any difference. And I think they have higher expectations about what women can do. And they’re more ambitious than I was when I was their age…because I thought, I didn’t have any women managers, I certainly didn’t have any women managers who were parents. So I honestly felt and believed back then, 30 years ago, that it was impossible to be a parent and a senior manager.”

Which is exactly what she ended up becoming. And she says women respect her for her experience – she was a pioneer, and she’s mentored a lot of other women, including pregnant ones. She doesn’t work with that many young men but she notices they are more likely to write her off as an older woman – to assume she doesn’t know how to use technology, that kind of thing…

“And I do find sometimes that young men do tend to treat me more like their mother than young women, who tend to look at me more as a role model or a mentor.”

Still, there are things she finds odd about this generation at the office.

“One is their reluctance to speak on the phone.”


“This is a generation that has grown up on email and I guess they’re called digital natives. And I find they’re really not used to dealing with strangers on the phone. They have a lot of connections in virtual ways but less in real ways. I had one assistant who wouldn’t even answer the phone if she didn’t recognize the number. She was so used to screening calls which is what a lot of people do now on phones, like on their mobiles and stuff. And she didn’t realize – I had to talk to her – that if you’re at work you answer the phone. You don’t wait for it to be someone you know. And she found that really hard.”

But it’s not just that some 20-somethings are nervous about talking to people they don’t know. I’ve noticed a general reluctance to use the phone as a business tool.  

So Generation Y, what is it about the phone that you find so objectionable?

“That’s a really good question.”

Nora Mathews just turned 30. She works in journalism too, but on the business side, the publishing side.

“I think when it comes to the workplace it’s about having a paper trail, I mean a digital trail – it’s easier to collaborate, share and remember if you have this external brain of everything always being documented…so if you have a conversation on the phone for a work thing and you’re trying to remember later what you said, if you’re using Slack it’s all right there…you can go back to it, hop in, see what you were talking about, make their suggestions, so as a work thing I’d say it’s an efficiency thing. And as a generational preference I would say phone is the least useful form of communication because you don’t get body language. If you’re in front of someone on video chat or in real life you can pick up on so much more. And there’s a lot that gets lost in translation if you’re only using your voice.”

Nora works for Gen X women and she likes them, respects them, but tensions do crop up.

“There’s some sort of communication breakdown that happens and I think it might have to do with people that had started their careers and had a foothold in their career before the recession, and people who started their careers during or afterwards just have a very different perspective in the workplace.”

And we’ll get into that more in a minute. Nora says she’s noticed a lot of inter-generational angst, it’s partly why she’s so interested in this topic, as well as her own experiences at work…

“It feels to me like there are a lot of generational flame wars that are happening on the internet right now where people are trying to prod people – millennials are trying to throw things at boomers and vice versa and Gen X gets caught in the middle. And I don’t know if that is very productive or very accurate. Like I haven’t met the phantom millennial who feels entitled and needs a lot of hand holding, but I also haven’t met the phantom boomer. I think all of the women I’ve worked with and maybe I’ve been lucky in that respect have felt in their own way, from their own perspective, they’re trying to help, but they’re trying based on the information they have and what things were like when they were coming up through the workplace. So I’ve noticed the women I work for maybe assume a certain level of me trying to climb the same ladder that existed when they were climbing it. And as someone who, I graduated in 2008 and I was always a super achiever, I had great grades, graduated with high honors. In any other era I would have been an immediate scrambling up the ladder person and I was a janitor for two years.”

She wasn’t cleaning out the loos at the subway station – she was working at a spa…

“But it caused a perspective shift and attitude shift as to how much emotional energy goes into my job or my emotional wellbeing or my identity comes from the work I do during the day.”

And she has this feeling that the women she works for, these Gen X women, they don’t get it. They worry that she isn’t putting enough of herself into her job…and she says it’s something…

“…that feels like a very women-on-women attitude – I don’t see it expected of other men of my generation in the workplace, and it’s not that it’s negative exactly, it’s that there’s an expectation that there’s a confluence between my performance at my daily tasks and my emotional investment in my work. So the men I work with for example are able to get raises and promotions and do a great job crushing their daily tasks and contributing to strategy, and hitting their goals, and they’re not expected to engage in the performance of being in love with those tasks.”

AM-T: “Is what you’re saying that the women you work for expect you to be emotionally invested in your work where they don’t necessarily expect the guys to be?”

“That’s what it feels like, and maybe part of that is they see a little of themselves in me or there’s this mentoring relationship and that’s what their experience has been. And in some ways especially in the industries I’ve been in, if you are starting out at the bottom of the ladder and really had to pay your dues and scramble and invest all of yourself in climbing that ladder it requires a certain amount of emotional investment. And they’ve clearly done that and gotten to a place where things are going well for them, and they want to help me through that same process. But my peers and I look – especially in media and publishing – and we see an industry that’s being radically restructured, we see like what does it mean to get on the bottom rung of a ladder that’s falling down?” 

They’re not keen to tread that wobbly ladder – at least not in the same way, making the same sacrifices.

“And it’s not that my friends and I weren’t working very hard but we saw how institutions won’t necessarily take care of you in the way that they were once expected to, and that you have to work hard at whatever it is that pays your bills, but that doesn’t have to be the thing that…”

 AM-T: “Sustains your soul.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t have to sustain your soul. And it can be that you’re a spa janitor writing a novel and bartending at night and taking some copywriting work on the side, and none of those things are who you are, they’re what you do.”

And we’re going to talk more about side hustles – that feature of millennial working life – in the next show.

I brought up with Nora something my wonderful ex-intern April told me once. She was working at a particular place and she had this problem that needing solving, but she couldn’t go straight to the top people to tackle it. She was told, oh no, you have to go to this person first, and he’ll escalate it to those people. And she just could not believe what she saw as the level of bureaucracy she had to go through to get something done. She thought this was absolutely absurd. I asked Nora if this was something she thought about too.

“Absolutely – yes, and it’s difficult to know, whether…because it does feel like the Gen X women who are my direct superiors, they are the gatekeepers and the enforcers of those bureaucratic systems. So it’s difficult to tell sometimes, where is that level of resistance? Is it with my direct superiors? Is it institutional, corporate culture in general that’s the problem? It’s hard to know where it begins. But it’s something we run into regularly and the younger women that I work with are all trying to get everyone on board with using these systems that make everything faster, more efficient, that will prevent there being silos between different departments and will get people collaborating and really doing what needs to be done to bring the industry forward. But again we are the youngest workers in the workforce, and we have the least power, and we’ve been around for the least amount of time…so it’s difficult to say to someone who is older than you and who is experienced and who you do respect, that there are some things they’re probably getting wrong.”

And talking of older people and getting things wrong, I asked Nora how she felt about the recent storm over comments Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright made about who young American women should vote for. Both women are Democrats. Both support Hillary Clinton. But the youngest female Democrats are much more likely to support Bernie Sanders.

During a TV interview Steinem commented that young women were into Bernie because quote ‘the boys are with Bernie.’ Cue outrage, derision and general nastiness.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright also stepped in it at a rally for Clinton…

Albright: “…and a lot of you younger women don’t think you have to – it’s been done. It’s not done. And you have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who do not help eachother.”

“I think it was not worded well and I think it was a deep misunderstanding of how women of my generation would hear it. But I can also understand as a young woman coming from a workplace that still suffers from a lot of gender imbalance and we’re still struggling with issues that from when I was very young I was raised to think would not exist any more…and I now see they do. Where to be women who’ve dealt with that their whole lives, I can see where they’re coming from, I think that it was poorly said and poorly executed. I think the war that’s happened over it is about that same fundamental breakdown in communication and deep misunderstanding.”

The kind of breakdown that sometimes happens at her office.

Next time we’re going to get more perspective from Gen X women…and how they see themselves and Gen Y split on attitudes from getting ahead, to the approach to  parenthood…

“There’s the decisions around the whole concept of having children. And I am fairly dramatic with this. This is why I chose to be a super-auntie to my sisters’ kids and not have my own because I wanted to have that freedom.”

But she doesn’t think Gen Y women want to make that same choice.

We’ll hear more from that guest and others on the next show.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual you can comment under this episode on the website or on the show’s Facebook page.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.