A couple of weeks ago in this column I wondered if readers had seen signs of tension between different generations of staff in their workplace. Little did I know what a hornet's nest I was stirring up.
The reaction was immediate, emphatic and unanimous. Everybody who responded said they are acutely aware of colleagues of one age group who hold colleagues from another age group in low regard. In most cases, the disdain simmers just below the surface. But several of you described contempt so extreme it occasionally erupts in front of co-workers and even patients.
"Our youngest staffer lost it last summer and yelled at the supervisor to get off her back. The supervisor shouted that she was a spoiled brat who ought to move back home with Mommy and Daddy," one e-mailer reported, adding dryly, "It went downhill from there."
Thankfully, the tension tends to be more subtle, though the attitudes are strongly held.
Gen Xers and Yers "are only interested in collecting a paycheck and doing the minimum they need to do to get by," a boomer wrote. "If it isn't required, they aren't interested"—a theme echoed by a number of other respondents in the 40-and-over age range. To wit:
"Younger employees view their jobs as jobs, not as professions or careers."
"They don't want to pay their dues by taking night shifts, etc…"
"They lack commitment to the mission. They're only committed to having fun."
"As soon as they're hired they ask, 'When can I take time off?' That is irritating to me."
OK, so what do people in their 20s and 30s think? Well…
"I work with two people in their 50s and I can tell you, they are just coasting toward retirement."
"The tenured staff have a sense of entitlement. They don't think they should have to take call or learn the new technology."
"The baby boomers get mad when we wonder why things are done a certain way. They're defensive about their sacred cows."
"Some older staff withhold information from the younger staff to make themselves indispensable."
"My older co-workers feel threatened by me. They're scared of change and I'm not. They think I want their job and I do. If I'm better at it, why not?"
All righty, then …
Happily, nearly everybody who e-mailed me—even those who lamented most emphatically what they view as the shortcomings of their younger or older colleagues—understand how destructive generational friction can be to a work unit. A common theme in the responses: Employees, supervisors and top executives must recognize the unique strengths each generation brings to the workplace and capitalize on those traits so they complement rather than clash with each other. As one writer put it: "Respect for what each generation contributes and avoiding 'us vs. them' discussions is essential."
Though one R.N. was writing specifically about nurses, I think her comments could apply to staff wherever they work in the hospital: "Older nurses have the experience that can predict how things will occur in patient care. Younger nurses bring a sense of risk to the workplace. They're definitely not intimidated by technology and are more resourceful in finding needed solutions/answers. I view these unique practices as the yin and yang needed to move patient care into the next phase of health care services … delivering quality care for less."
Nicely put. Lots of people had good ideas about what hospital management can do to ease generational friction. I'll share some of those next Tuesday in this space. Many thanks to everyone who responded to my questions. And as always, I enjoy hearing your thoughts about how generational shifts are impacting American health care. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.