Spanning the ages

To motivate the different generations in the IT workforce, you have to understand what makes each group tick.


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In this article:
Here comes the gray boom
Characteristics of the generations

Chuck Townsend builds bridges. Not the steel-and-cable kind--he builds software tools that unite legacy COBOL applications with new Java technology. To get his product launched, Townsend faces a challenge that's bound to confront more and more IT managers in the coming decades: he needs to hire both old and young techies, and he must find a way to get them to work together smoothly.

Here comes the gray boom
The result is a greater mix of ages in the workplace than ever before.

As the U.S. population ages…
In 1955: there were 6.3 people ages 20-64 for every person 65 or older
In 1990: there were 4.7 people ages 20-64 for every person 65 or older
In 2030: there will be only 2.7 people ages 20-64 for every person 65 or older
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

…the workplace is also graying…
Median age of worker in 1979: 35
Median age of worker in 2005: 41
Source: Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Bethesda, Md.

…but IT openings remain overabundant
Number of unfilled IT jobs in the U.S.:
In 1999: 400,000
In 2001: 600,000
In 2005: 1.2 million
Source: Meta Group Inc., Stamford, Conn.
"We have programmers in their 20s, 30s, and some well into their 50s," says Townsend, president of LegacyJ Corp., in Pleasanton, Calif. "No one person has all the knowledge we need. Our business relies on getting past the generation gap, getting the old guy to share his expertise with the young guy."

In many ways, the workplace at LegacyJ is a microcosm of the future, experts say. The reasons have to do with the shift in American demographics, combined with the growing shortage of high-tech workers (see "Here comes the gray boom"). "In 2002, there will be 850,000 job openings in IT in the U.S. alone," says H. Michael Boyd, manager of the Resourcing Strategies research program at International Data Corp., the IT consulting and research firm in Framingham, Mass. In addition, a recent poll by the Wall Street Journal shows that most Baby Boomers plan to work well beyond age 65. Clearly, IT managers will need to look beyond the new graduates and the mid-career technologists to staff their organizations.

"The population is aging, the workforce is aging, and the new generation coming along is much smaller than the last," says Bill Payson, president of The Senior Staff Job Information Exchange Inc., in Campbell, Calif., which runs SeniorTechs (www.seniortechs.com), an online database of IT professionals over age 35. "All that adds up to a shortage of workers in the IT sphere. The day is coming when employers are going to start panicking, and they'll realize there's a huge untapped resource in older workers."

Culture clash

In the past, rigid hierarchies kept older and younger workers apart, even when they worked in the same company, claims a new book, Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace. "At no previous time in our history have so many and such different generations ... been asked to work together shoulder to shoulder, side by side, cubicle to cubicle," according to authors Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak "The gulf of misunderstanding and resentment between older, not so old, and younger employees in the workplace is growing."

The first step in bridging that gulf, says Claire Raines, is to recognize the cultural differences between the generations. "Workers of different ages have different frames of reference, different attitudes toward authority, or toward socializing in the workplace, or even toward how they dress and talk," says Raines, who also works as a management consultant in Denver, Colo. (see "The Generations"). "The Generation X kid who has been asked to manage a group of Baby Boomers, for instance, complains that the Boomers aren't keeping up with the hottest technology. Or the veteran feels that the younger folks only care about their lattes and their Beemers, and don't have enough respect."

Handling the conflicts that arise between workers of different generations may start with learning to be sensitive to what each worker needs from his or her workplace, experts say. For instance, it's wise to "recognize that older workers are less comfortable with classroom-style training," says Beverly Goldberg, vice president of The Century Foundation Inc., a think tank based in New York City, and author of Age Works: What Corporate America Must Do to Survive the Graying of the Workforce, due to be published in January 2000. "Find ways to do preliminary one-on-one training between an older worker and a younger worker before you set them all together in a classroom."

LegacyJ's Townsend has found that successfully integrating multi-age teams begins during the hiring process. "If we're hiring an older worker, we'll bring in the younger ones to the interview too," he says. "That way, the older worker gets a feel for the culture of the place, and the younger workers get a sense of the qualities and expertise being brought in by the older guy. It gives both sides credibility."

Finally, he says, keep an eye out for ways to demonstrate the value each age group brings to the workplace. "Have lunch together," Townsend says. "You wouldn't believe how little stories passed between workers over a sandwich--stories about their lives, about their work--can help subtly solve problems."

Solving some real-life problems

To meet the needs of your diverse workforce, you need to understand how older and younger workers interact. Below are three real-life scenarios of workers of different generations and the challenges they present to IT managers. Datamation has asked Claire Raines to take a crack at providing solutions to the questions presented by each scenario.

Scenario one
Bridging the gap between generations: Michael Suelzer is a 52-year-old software engineer with an advanced degree in mathematics. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., and has worked for several employers over the years, most recently at Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Sprint PCS Group, a division of Sprint Corp. based in Kansas City, Mo. He's comfortable knowing that as far as careers go, he will always be different from his father, who worked for the same company for 45 years.

Suelzer began working as a FORTRAN programmer. He admits that, once upon a time, he believed that "FORTRAN would be the last language anybody would have to learn." When it became clear that the programming world would move beyond FORTRAN, he quickly set about learning new skills. "I hear all the time about age discrimination in the workplace," Suelzer says. "But it's really up to the worker to keep his skills up to snuff."

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