"Don't define me," a reader chided me a year or so ago. "I'm not like anybody else my age. Nobody my age is like anybody else my age."

 

This indignant Gen X-er was reacting to a series of blog posts I'd written about the fact that four generations of employees now work side by side in hospitals, from pre-baby boomers, to boomers, to Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers. Each generation brings distinct life experiences and expectations to their jobs, according to a number of reports. Sometimes, those differences can cause tension, and if the individuals involved and their managers aren't careful, those tensions can become quite disruptive.

I asked readers whether they'd ever seen evidence of a generation gap in their hospitals. Or was this a tempest in a teapot?

The response was emphatic. I got dozens of emails from across the hospital spectrum — C-suite to patient floors — sharing stories about older and younger colleagues butting heads, sometimes loudly and in front of patients. Young physicians told me older medical staff were too set in their ways. HR people complained that the first thing young hires ask is how soon they can take vacation. RNs a year or two into their careers insisted there's truth to the old trope that "nurses eat their young." Executives expressed frustration that younger staff expect to be quickly promoted but aren't willing to put in the hard work that leadership requires.

That strong response led us here at H&HN to develop a year-long series we're calling Generations in the Workplace. The series, which begins with the current issue of the magazine, draws on experts in human resources, staffing and sociology — as well as people who actually work in hospitals — to define generational differences and how they play out on the job. Every other month in the magazine, we'll share real-life examples of how hospitals are working to accommodate the varied expectations of employees across the age spectrum, how they can retain older workers and recruit younger ones, and how they can ease tensions, avoid clashes and maintain a thriving and peaceable organization.

Still, that Gen X-er who objected to generalizations about herself and other young co-workers makes an excellent point. I bristle whenever boomers like me are reduced to cliches. True, I may fit the stereotype of curmudgeonly technophobe, but not everybody my age does.

Still, we're all shaped to a large extent by the eras in which we come of age, by historical events and pop culture, by the worldview our elders pass down to us and by exposure to new ways of thinking. We can stand around and grumble about those lazy kids or the grumpy old fogies we have to work with. Or we can choose to learn from each other and grow. It's never too late — or too soon.