Generation *##@**##@!!

A new book on workplace tensions among four generations -- veterans, boomers, Xers, and nexters -- explains why it's so difficult for all of us to get along. So do you have a problem with that?

They have no work ethic. They're just a bunch of slackers.

So I told my boss, "If you're looking for loyalty, buy a dog."

He treats me like the girl who came across the street to mow his grass. How can I establish credibility with this man who is old enough to be my grandpa?

Here's the fun part: The workplace is flatter and more fast-paced than ever before. Here's the hard part: People from different backgrounds must work together, without getting to know one another first. Maybe that's why the sentiments expressed above sound so familiar. The generation gap is alive and well. But these days, the most heated arguments are over how you work and run your team, not over how you practice your politics or wear your hair.

"Generations at Work" is intended to help you bridge the gap -- or, more accurately, the gaps -- between people of different ages who work at your company. What's so vexing (and potentially so powerful) about the workplace is that four different groups are vying for roles and recognition. There are veterans (born between 1922 and 1943), boomers (born between 1943 and 1960), Xers (born between 1960 and 1980), and nexters (born after 1980). The people in each cohort, the book argues, have more in common than just their age: They share memories of the same world-shaping events, the same childhood heroes, the same early work experiences.

Little wonder, then, that members of each generation tend to share many of the same attitudes toward work and leadership. Boomers, for example, have embraced a team-based approach to business, because they are eager to shed the command-and-control style of veterans. But, the authors speculate, nexters -- the children of boomers and Xers -- may well thrive in a workplace that resembles what boomers have rejected. "It looks like, as workers, [nexters will] resemble the veterans in many ways: their belief in collective action, optimism about the future, trust in centralized authority, a will to get things done, and a heroic spirit in the face of overwhelming odds."

Learning about differences may be fun. But learning about cooperation is useful. And it's here that "Generations at Work" becomes a valuable tool. At the heart of the book are case studies of five well-known companies -- including T.G.I. Friday's, Ben & Jerry's, and Lucent Technologies -- that have developed creative ways for different generations to get along. These companies are different from one another, with unique histories and values, but they have all embraced common principles to create a harmonious workplace.

Each company has tried to create a work culture that not only focuses on what needs to get done but also accommodates the various ways in which people approach work. Employees at Lucent (a spin-off of AT&T, a century-old company that values seniority and titles) founded IdeaVerse, a training center that encourages creativity. And at Ben & Jerry's, the company has a "Joy Gang" that regularly sponsors a "Corporate Dress-Up Day" -- so that employees can pretend to be the suits that they're not.

These companies have also designed workplaces that reflect the sensibilities of multiple generations, not just the preferences of top executives. For example, West Group, a St. Paul -- based legal publisher that employs more than 8,000 people, invited Caribou Coffee to create a break space inside headquarters. That area, called Café.com, is filled with twentysomethings. Meanwhile, Thompson University, the company's training department, offers a bookstore stocked with the latest business best-sellers and the most popular self-actualization titles. "If Café.com is an Xer sanctuary," write the authors, "you don't have to wander too far to find a boomer playground."

Finally, companies that are smart about bridging the generation gap at work tend to take the high road when it comes to attitudes about work itself. They believe that employees of all generations, and especially younger workers, see their work as something to be enjoyed and cultivated, not something to be shirked. That attitude has allowed the Dallas- based T.G.I. Friday's, a chain of more than 500 restaurants, to retain its best workers, even as it lets them indulge their youthful wanderlust. With the "Passport Program," the company's top workers (whether they're servers, cooks, or dishwashers) can choose to work at any Friday's restaurant around the world. The program not only addresses a generation's desire to play -- it also rewards work well done.

Sidebar: Cheat Sheet

Your grandma is a free agent! Veterans account for a higher proportion of all self-employed workers than any other age group.

Weirdest source: Nostradamus, a 16th-century French astrologer, predicted that a major crisis would come with the next millennium. Could this be the nexters' defining challenge?

Don't trust anyone over 50? During the next 10 years, a boomer will turn 50 every 7.5 seconds. The boomers' new motto: "Age is a state of mind."

Do you want HTML with that? Eighty percent of all new businesses started in the past three years belong to Xers. "In high-tech companies in particular, Gen Xers are managing the very Boomers who only a few years ago were questioning [their] work ethics."

Best prediction" Generation gap? You ain't seen nothin' yet. "Mixing Xer managers and supervisors with a Nexter workforce looks like a recipe for a future disaster."

The more things change "Life for every generation has become increasingly nonlinear, unpredictable, and unchartable." See, we do have things in common!

Sidebar: FC Recommends

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Best Practice: "Customer Capitalism: Increasing Returns in New Market Spaces," by Sandra Vandermerwe (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1999). Hands-on lessons from such companies as Monsanto, Microsoft, and Amazon.com. Here's how to play by many of the new rules outlined by the gurus from BCG.

Sleeper: "The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back," by Bill Shore (Random House, 1999). One of the nonprofit world's most innovative leaders offers an inspiring guide to social entrepreneurship.

Keeper: "First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently," by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (Simon & Schuster, 1999). The Gallup Organization has interviewed more than 80,000 managers over the past 25 years. This book, an ambitious effort to make sense of those interviews, produces some mind-bending conclusions. It's also both smart and fun.

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