Clash of the Generations by Valerie M Grubb Book Summary

Clash of the Generations, Managing the New Workplace Reality by Valerie M. Grubb


Executive coach Valerie M. Grubb’s slim guide to employee engagement starts with the notion that you can cluster tens of millions of people into four broad categories according to age and then make important management decisions about them. But, to her credit, Grubb goes beyond age cohorts in her advice to managers. She insists throughout that every employee is different and requires individualized care, coaching, feedback and meaningful work. getAbstract finds that her well-researched, well-referenced report offers useful background for HR and leadership newcomers, but reports of outright generational conflict seem a bit exaggerated. And that’s good.


  • Forecasters expected that baby boomers would retire in droves, but they haven’t.
  • Their continued presence at work means “four generations” co-exist in your workforce.
  • Due to their divergent drives and expectations, the four generations – baby boomers, generation X, millennials and generation Z – often “clash.”
  • This complicates your efforts to manage and lead your employees.
  • In broad terms, age and shared experiences during their “formative years” characterize the members of each generation.
  • Doting parents heaped excessive praise on millennials, who seek recognition and meaning at work. They “blend” work and leisure.
  • Generation Xers, many of whom had dual-income or divorced parents, crave independence.
  • Baby boomers, who experienced the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and Vietnam, work to live and live to acquire.
  • Generation Z, the newest entrants into the workforce, mostly resemble millennials.
  • Employees need clear goals, autonomy, growth opportunities, appreciation and respect.
Clash of the Generations Book Cover

Clash of the Generations Book Summary

Four Generations at Work

The anticipated mass exodus of the baby boomers from the workforce never happened. Instead, boomers stayed put, delaying their retirement and setting up a potential clash with the generations behind them. Millennials now make up the largest cohort of employees in the United States. They work side-by-side with boomers, generation X and, very soon, generation Z – and will, for years to come. With four generations at work – each with separate values and work ethics – organizations face novel challenges and need creative solutions.

“Figuring out what makes each person perform at his or her best is one of the most satisfying experiences a manager can have.”

Compounding these challenges, many firms have not kept pace with employee expectations. Whatever their age, today’s talented workers expect more of a say in the way they work and what they do, so command-and-control management techniques no longer work. Due to poor choice of leaders or inadequate training, many firms lack managers with the skills to cope with these issues.

“Foster an environment of inclusion that recognizes differences, celebrates commonalities, and puts into action policies and procedures that address each group’s priorities.”

Managers’ first, most important work involves learning what engages and motivates each individual, and using that knowledge to maximize performance. Leaders should emphasize “diversity and inclusion,” so employees of all ages have a voice and feel respected, and so that the workforce resembles the customer base. For their part, employees should do their jobs well and cooperate on diversified teams. Smart and competent plus arrogant and aloof won’t cut it – bosses can’t risk having the whole team derailed by one or two prima donnas of whatever generation.

Generation What?

Technically, a new generation occurs every 20 years. But generations define themselves in several ways, including “birth years, age, location and significant life events at critical developmental stages.” Major events or movements tend to shape the psyches of younger people coming of age at the same time. Baby boomers or the “me generation” – born between 1946 and 1964 – experienced the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War in their “formative years.” They chase the American dream and value hard work.

“Each age cohort brings its own expectations, goals, motivations and experiences into the office.”

Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) forms a much smaller cohort. Xers often took care of themselves as children because their boomer dads and moms both worked, and many homes were split by divorce. This trauma, in combination with Watergate, AIDS and various “environmental disasters,” make them generally independent but skeptical and disenchanted.

“Companies that achieve long-term success share one vital characteristic: They are full of employees and managers who feel valued and constantly push themselves to meet – and exceed – their goals.”

Following gen X, 83 million millennials (born between 1981 and 1997) loom even larger in the workforce than boomers. Their doting parents and high sense of self-worth make them hungrier for recognition and meaningful work. Early exposure to the web makes then tech-savvy and connected. Members of gen Z, born after 1997 and soon to be the largest, most diverse US generation, just started entering the workforce. They are tech-smart, like Xers, due to their experiences with technology and social networks, but their exposure to recession and uncertainty make them anxious and cautious.

Leading the Generations

The broad strokes that define the generations may help managers gain a general sense of what drives people from each group. With four generations at work, leaders face the challenge of creating conditions and benefits with wide appeal. To leverage the value – including innovation and creativity – of such a diverse workforce, leaders must listen to and include everyone.

“The ideal employee…not only excels at his or her work but also understands how to be part of a diverse workforce.”

Corporate cultures that prize diversity and inclusion will recognize and reward leaders and staff members who practice those values. Managers should overcome the natural predilection to hire people like themselves, and build teams that reflect their firms’ customer base. Encourage openness and idea sharing. Reward “risk taking” and don’t punish honest mistakes. Those who recognize and run with workers’ good ideas will reap the benefits of such inclusiveness, including higher retention, more innovation, improved decision making and better customer relations.

“When managers don’t delegate effectively, they aren’t empowering their employees – which in turn can strongly influence how motivated those employees are to accomplish their goals.”

As a manager, start by working on yourself to build your self-awareness. Take time for your personal development. Mentor others, and find a mentor for yourself. Ask if you, like most people, tend to judge others at first glance? Manage those thoughts and learn to maintain an open mind. Innovative people can be found in every group. Help others to see the value in everyone, and avoid stereotypes – such as the common notion that older workers can’t learn new skills. When you listen to all of your employees, regardless of their age, you send a message throughout the workforce. Emphasize the similarities among employees rather than the differences. The people in your workforce, regardless of age, have far more in common than not. Remind them of their shared similarities and concerns.

“Baby boomers want respect for their experience, generation Xers want autonomy and money, and millennials want a team experience coupled with more frequent recognition.”

Whatever their age, staff members need three pivotal things from their leaders: Complete, clear knowledge of their goals and what it means to perform; regular feedback and coaching; appreciation when they achieve their objectives. These elements are the foundation of “multigenerational” leadership. Offer boomers with tenure greater discretion in how they achieve the goals. Give Xers similar leeway, and let them work alone when possible.

“Millennials do work hard. Unlike older generations, who usually work without question on the tasks to which they are assigned, millennials will actually ask why something needs to be done.”

For millennials, teams rule; give them extra guidance and encourage them frequently. In providing feedback, tread carefully with boomers and avoid the appearance of “micromanaging.” Gen Xers want autonomy, but mix that freedom with frequent coaching. For millennials, increase feedback dramatically – to a daily level where possible. Offer meaningful rewards and avoid a “hands-off” managerial style.

“Each generation has its own learning styles, often shaped to a large degree by the technological innovations during that generation’s formative years.”

The younger the employees, the less time they will tend to stay in your organization, but Generation Z forms too small a workforce cohort to have established consistent, distinctive traits like the others. Early indicators suggest that leaders should treat them like millennials. Despite the differences in the generations, simply ask your employees what level of feedback they desire, and cater to them on an individual basis rather than venturing a “guess” based on their age cohort.

Feedback Matters

Make feedback and coaching two-way, honest conversations. Though millennials and generation Z may particularly crave coaching, offer it to all employees. Coaching doesn’t focus on specific areas for improvement; it aims to help employees reflect on their abilities. Good coaching makes a huge difference to workers of all ages.

“Employers who want their employees to stick around need to…make them happy. [That] means giving them the feedback they need.”

Recognize and reward your employees. Everyone, regardless of generation, craves appreciation. Combine recognition from leaders with “peer-to-peer recognition.” Colleagues often have the best knowledge of their co-workers’ contributions. Zappos, for example, gives employees $50 each month to reward to those co-workers they believe deserve recognition.

“Most people want a sense of purpose to their lives – including the time they spend at work.”

Offer everyone a fair and competitive base pay rate; without that, nothing else matters very much. Every worker benefits from a sense of job security, so avoid creating an atmosphere of insecurity. Show empathy and caring, especially when employees face tough times outside of work. Tell people how their work contributes to a larger goal; give them interesting, challenging assignments; and ask for their input on decisions. Don’t assume that just because you know their age, you know what they prefer in terms of feedback, “growth opportunities” or purposeful work.

“Everyone wants…a pleasant work environment, proper compensation, and recognition for a job well done. Acknowledging these similarities among the diverse members of your team will help you perceive them more as a cohesive group than as a disparate mix of generations.”

And, don’t micromanage. All generations want autonomy and appreciation, and everyone hopes to enjoy his or her time at work. Motivate employees of all ages with imaginative stretch assignments and challenging tasks. Get to know each of your team members individually, so you understand what motivates them and what rewards they find most meaningful. Don’t guess; ask.

Promote Learning

When you’re hiring, seek people who love learning. Those who frame challenges as opportunities to learn will develop into valuable assets. Learning takes many forms. Leaders must give people the opportunity to grow by delegating important work to them and allowing them to lead projects. That will motivate and engage them. “Hold employees accountable” for the work you give them, but don’t delegate without empowering. Resist telling employees how to do their jobs. Offer your people challenging work. Describe their tasks and the goals clearly, and get out of their way. Let them figure it out and make their own decisions. When they succeed, recognize and reward them.

“Everyone – young and old – needs to be treated with respect.”

Different generations prefer to learn in different ways. Millennials, for example, may embrace mobile learning on their smartphones, while boomers – who for most of their careers may have had no other option than formal classroom training – might prefer something more hands-on. Cater to all types of learners and learning styles by offering different options – from books to classroom to online – using a range of media, technology and methods. Where possible, develop “experiential” training, such as job shadowing, rotations, temporary assignments and stints as volunteers on nonprofit boards. Match employees to mentors, whether individually or in groups.

Career Paths

Tell your employees how they can achieve their aspirations within your firm so they don’t leave. Boomers might seek a path to gradual retirement. Xers may emphasize skill development. Millennials and generation Z may prefer career paths that lead to meaning, purpose and personal growth. Lay out the paths employees can take, including succession plans that integrate with each one’s personal development plan. Work with staffers to create their paths. Conduct gap analyses to identify workers’ missing skills, and align their career and growth plans with the firm’s objectives. Determine goals and measure progress.

Getting Work Done

Millennials don’t define “work ethic” as boomers and gen Xers do. The difference doesn’t mean millennials do less work. They just don’t see the need to get it done at any particular place or any certain time of day. Nor will millennials simply do a task; they want to know why they should. The why of work includes telling employees what you expect, including how work gets done. Values, such as “honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, trust, dedication, determination” and concern for others, should resonate in your leadership style.

Infuse work with meaning and purpose. Millennials want to “make a difference” and work for firms committed to sustainable practices. Your company’s commitment to these values will pay off in engagement, retention and performance, especially when your firm integrates its “social mission” into its formal mission statement. Talk to your employees individually about their preferences and their work. Strike the right balance of flexibility, feedback, reporting and employees’ varying needs for purposeful work. Clarify conduct rules so people understand their boundaries and accountabilities.

In terms of work-life balance, though millennials are ambitious, they have different notions of “sacrifice” and what it means to lead a balanced life. Today’s mobile technologies blur the lines between work and leisure, effectively “blending” the two. Millennials don’t want to work less – they just don’t see the point or practicality in not combining the two. Inflexible workplaces are an enormous turnoff for millennials and increasingly, for workers of all ages.

Effective managers use clear goals and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to measure performance, not the hours an employee spends in the office. Using reliable performance measures, most firms can offer several work options without sacrificing productivity. These options include partial or full-time telework, flexible hours, split shifts, job sharing and longer days but shorter weeks. Include remote and part-time workers in meetings.


Tailor your communications. Younger workers may respond more to blogs and text messages, while older workers may prefer telephone and email. Understand what each employee wants and needs in terms of the medium and the frequency of messaging. Encourage openness to ideas, particularly from millennials who may be tired of older workers shooting down their ideas by saying they tried all that before and found that it didn’t work. Emphasize the value of older workers’ experience. As a leader, foster an environment of mutual respect. Take satisfaction in helping your employees grow.

About the Author

Valerie M Grubb

Valerie M. Grubb held executive positions at NBC and now coaches organizations on workforce issues.