Diversity in the workforce includes generations, Miami professor says

Megan Gerhardt encourages businesses to embrace generational differences in the workplace.

By Nina Franco, university news and communications intern

Megan Gerhardt coined the term “gentelligence” — “the ability to appreciate and leverage the insights of other generations to solve problems and create opportunities.”

The professor of management began her work as millennials were entering college classrooms 10 years ago. The youngest millennials will be 23 this year. Most students on college campuses across the United States are now considered Generation Z.

Gerhardt is a co-director of the William Isaac and Michael Oxley Center for Business Leadership in Miami’s Farmer School of Business. She studies student perspectives on the workplace.

Gerhardt views generational differences as a form of diversity, a view not widely held in most organizations and most likely why there are misunderstandings between generations.

In this question-and-answer piece, she talks about her research and the future of the workplace.

Q: What are some of the main differences among generations?

A: We do see some identity differences. For example, baby boomers worked their careers to create opportunities their parents didn’t have growing up in the Great Depression. They worked a lot, they worked hard and they tried to attain levels of success that their parents weren’t able to have. But, that meant a lot of them weren’t around very much. With women’s rights/civil rights, that meant we had more two-parent working households. So, my generation, Generation X, was the first generation where maybe mom wasn’t home after school or both mom and dad were working. Gen X is known as the slacker generation. Because we thought, “Well, I’m not doing that, all they do is work. I want to be there for my kids, I want to have a life.” Boomers perceived this as lazy.

Q: Is this the beginning of the misunderstandings among generations?

A: Millennials were raised by the youngest of the boomer parents and Gen X parents. These groups wanted their kids to have even more opportunities. So, they put them in Spanish, soccer, harp and mommy-and-me. All very well intentioned, but suddenly the family started revolving around kids. -That’s where the trophy generation label comes from.

Q: Is this also where the word ‘entitlement’ popped up?

A: We put a lot into this generation of millennials. Then, when they got to our classrooms and boardrooms and wanted a voice, we said, ‘Who do they think they are?’ Instead of seeing an opportunity to leverage their confidence, we largely said, ‘You need to sit down and be quiet. That is very entitled of you. You don’t get to have a voice yet.’ We are squandering all that potential that we had developed. We need to learn that our values aren’t extremely different, but the way we express those values or the behaviors can be very different. And, if you don’t understand, you are going to have conflict and then lose your millennial and Gen Z talent. We also are losing value at the other end because boomers feel like they are being replaced and not heard.

Q: What work ethics do you think boomers could learn from millennials? And, vice-versa?

A: A lot of it centers around the idea, ‘What does it mean to work?’ The idea for the traditional generation, which is the generation before boomers, was work meant you are at work from 7 till at minimum 5. But, if you really wanted to make something of yourself, you stayed till your boss left. And that has changed dramatically. Boomers need to learn that work doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at a desk. It is important to be mindful that someone else’s ideas and expectations are not wrong, they are just very different. Millennials want meaningful and important work, just like the rest of us, but their expectation of that at 20 is very different than what we thought of at 20. That is where the disconnect tends to happen.

Q: How do you think the workplace environment is going to shift as more Gen Zs enter the workplace?

A: I think it is going to be really interesting. I think it is going to be how millennials react to Gen Z because Gen Z isn’t a very large generation. Boomers were the largest, but as they are retiring, they are not as strong in number as the millennials. The millennials are the greatest population in the workforce. My hope/push is that they greet the Gen Z in much more of a ‘gentelligent’ kind of way, where they think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get a different perspective on this?’ My hope is that the millennials will be more open to the ideas and perspectives of Gen Z than we were with millennials.