Not long ago a friend told our adult Sunday school class about a training program her work organization was undertaking. The purpose of the program was to help different generations of employees communicate more effectively with each other. At the heart of the training program was a book, Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage (Brown Books, 2009) written by well-respected human resource consultant Sherri Elliott-Yeary.
Immediately my antennae shot up. I am always looking for ways to promote better communication among age groups. I wondered if it was possible to learn how and why each age group thinks the way they do so that we can talk to each other without becoming defensive. Even though the book is intended for business organizations, I thought it might be useful for churches, too.
Now I know what you may be thinking. The communication gap between age groups is nothing new. Even so, I would suggest that our current environment is somehow different, more complex than ever before. For one thing, change is occurring at a breakneck pace, and change always stirs up communication challenges.
Ms. Elliott-Yeary makes the case that different generations have different core values and motivations. In a nutshell, the author defines each generational group roughly by age and by a set of core values. She describes Traditionalists (born 1922-1943) as having a strong sense of loyalty and sacrifice. Having grown up during the upheavals of depression and war, Traditionalists had to work hard for every penny they earned which explains why most value fiscal restraint, patience and duty before pleasure.
Boomers (born 1944-1960) represent the largest generation in human history. They have not experienced economic hard times as their parents did. Boomers are hardworking overachievers, optimistic idealists and are all about personal gratification, which often leads to narcissism.
According to Ms. Elliott-Yeary, Xers (born 1961-1980) are identified by techno-literacy, informality and fun. Having grown up in a time when American institutions were called into question, Xers are skeptical of rules and authority and seek independence. They value portable careers and are loyal to themselves, not an organization. The Xer mantra is WIIFM: What’s In It For Me?
Millennials (born 1981 to 2000) are social multi-taskers and are anxious to make a difference in the world. They have a strong sense of morality based on their understanding of right and wrong. The author emphasizes that Millennials are confident and team-oriented, but they do want and expect immediate gratification.
The book’s premise is that each generational group has been shaped largely by their upbringing in a specific period of time. With groups having different values and motivations, it’s not surprising that conflict is inevitable. Ms. Elliott-Yeary suggests, for example, that Traditionalists resent Millennials for their entitlement mentality. Millennials resent Boomers for not being good stewards of the planet. Xers get upset with Traditionalists for being resistant to change. Boomers get miffed that Xers are so willing to change jobs on a whim. And so it goes.
Ms. Elliott-Yeary stresses that, more than any other influence, the use of and adaptability to technology has created a perceived divide between those who grew up without technology and those born with instant Internet access. She also points out that the key to a successful multi-generational organization is to learn to appreciate each group’s underlying needs. What then does this mean for the church?
In next month’s column I will explore that question. Until then, I encourage you to ponder how your own upbringing might be influencing conversation within the church. It’s something worth thinking about.