By Marilyn Van Norman

I was asked by the CERIC Research Committee to do a literature search on ‘Generational Conflict in the Workplace’, as it was an area identified through a Contact Point survey as a topic of research interest. After doing the search both the committee and I were stunned by the amount of research that actually has been conducted and the number of books and articles written on this topic. I have listed several references following this article but a much more comprehensive bibliography can be found on-line at Contact Point.

Clearly, the multi-generational workforce and its implications are of interest to many. Who makes up this mix and how do they actually differ from each other? What, if any, are the conflicts? I will try in this article to summarize what I learned in doing the search. It should be noted that in exploring this topic, generalizations about the different generations while hardly ideal is a given.

The number of senior members of the workforce is shrinking as retirement, despite it no longer being compulsory, becomes a reality for many. These employees known as traditionalists were born between 1922–1945. Many of the older members of this group worked for the same organization their entire lives and were staunchly loyal to that organization.

The traditionalists were followed into the workforce by the baby boomers, born between 1946–1964. As we know, this was a huge cohort which included record numbers of women. Work, while extremely important was not as all consuming as it had been for the previous generation and most baby boomers experienced a number of job moves from organization to organization. This group of employees, like the one before them, understood and respected the concept of ‘paying your dues’.

The Gen Xers came next. This is a generation of workers who believe in and in fact demand, work/life balance. They were born between 1965–1980. Most couples in this generation both work outside the home. Women believed that they could do it all—children and satisfying careers—for many this has been an enormous challenge.

And last, at this point, but far from least are the Millennials or Gen Ys who were born between 1981–2008. These young people come into the workforce looking for meaningful work, challenges, the opportunity for ideas exchange, a fun environment and flexibility. They have high expectations and believe that despite their youth and inexperience their ideas should have equal weight with others.

There seems to be a divergence of opinion amongst the experts in terms of the extent of conflict generational differences creates. Some researchers believe that all generations share the same values while others are convinced that the very differences in values create the conflict. It seems to me that while values may be similar what can be very different are expectations.

Research shows that the values that are shared amongst generations include the importance of family, the need for respect in the workplace and the opportunity to learn.

Expectations that may be different include the need for organizational loyalty, the necessity of paying your dues, having ideas and opinions respected equally regardless of experience, expecting work to always be interesting, challenging and fun, and the essential need for flexibility.

Differences in expectations amongst the generations may cause a lack of understanding and result in conflicts. An example might be that a CEO who is a traditionalist finds it incomprehensible that a twenty-two years old employee would walk into his office and want to discuss an idea she has for the company. He thinks to himself—who does she think she is—she is still wet behind the ears—how dare she think that her ideas have equal value to the Management Team’s? The twenty-two year old however thinks, I have an innovative approach to this issue and the CEO should want to hear it.

Although there has been much research done on the topic of generational conflict in the workplace, there have been few longitudinal studies conducted (Lirio 2007). It would be interesting to see what if any changes there might be in differences in expectations as more millennials join the workforce and traditionalists leave. I would have to assume that whatever gap there is would close.

In summary, this is a fascinating topic with many divergent views. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article I am including a very small fraction of the references available on this topic.


Marilyn Van Norman has over 30 years proven experience in student services management and coordination.She is a collaborator, visionary and expeditor, and is passionately committed to students and student support services.Since 1995, she has held the position of Director of Student Services, University of Toronto where she has provided vision, direction and strategic advice through eight Student Services departments’ Directors and over one hundred staff members.She recently initiated exciting new programs for first year students (FYI) and for graduate students (GSI) which have both proven to be extremely successful.Prior to that she was Director — Career Centre at University of Toronto where she exercised leadership and direction through the Associate Director for the operation of the Career Centre on three campuses.


Deal, Jennifer J. (2007). Retiring the Generational Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, Centre for Creative Learning

Duxbury, Linda, (2002). Work-Life balance in the New Millenium: Where Are We? Where Do We Need to Go? CPRN Discussion Paper No. W12

Karp, Ph.D. H.B., Sirias Ph.D. Danilo (2001) Generational Conflict, A New paradigm for Teams of the 21st Century, The Analytic Press

Lirio, Pamela (July 2002) Toward Understanding Generation X Women’s Careers, submission to ICWF Conference, Barcelona