Work and Family, A Conflict of Generations?

Can the causes of work-family conflict be traced to generational differences in priorities? Here’s the evidence- plus what we Gen Xers can do to improve the situation.

Three generations. We all probably see the value of work-family balance a little differently
Three generations. We all probably see the value of work-family balance a little differently

Talkin’ About Our Generations

I think studies based on generational differences are over-rated. After all, how valid could it possibly be to lump together people 48 years old to 33 years old in order to compare them with people 49 to 67 years old? I mean, wouldn’t the 48 and 49 year olds have more in common with each other than the rest of their purported “groups”?

With that caveat, I recently came along “Mixing and Managing Four Generations of Employees,” by Greg Hammill, in which he summarized some of the findings about different work-related attitudes and values among generations. This chart caught my eye:


Most of us  who are in the prime work-family conflict years are on the younger end of Generation X (yes, some in Gen Y face these pressures, but I’ll deal with them in a future article). Many of our supervisors and those in leadership positions at our workplaces are Baby Boomers. Let’s just compare between these two columns:

In our boss’ column are the words:

  • Loves to have meetings
  • In-person communications
  • Money and recognition as rewards
  • No work-family balance
  • Work to live

In ours:

  • Entrepreneur
  • Immediate (as in electronic) communication
  • Freedom is the best reward
  • Do it your way
  • Forget the rules
  • Work-family balance

Kind of a mis-match.

But if you look at these generational priorities, the roots of our work-family conflicts become more understandable. Your boss isn’t being a jerk when he wants you in the office all the time even if you could work more productively from home; he loves meetings and face to face communication. Your boss values rewards, titles, money and recognition in return for long hours; he probably thinks you do, as well. We value freedom and the ability to work out our own solutions; your boss doesn’t get it.

So, how can we use this information?

  • If we have a boss of a different generation, we should understand their perspective and make our different perspectives clear. Most managers really want to be supportive and do right by their employees. Many just may be stuck by projecting their priorities onto yours
  • We may want to really go out of our way to assure our supervisors that flexibility does not mean less work or lesser work. The tips I had for negotiating for part-time telework may be useful here
  • You may want to discuss their families. It is likely that your Boomer boss has a Gen X son or daughter who is dealing with work-family conflict. Perhaps you can relate your experience to theirs, expanding the scope of their thinking.

One last piece of advice is to hold on. It is likely that, as younger generations continue to move into leadership positions, that work-family values within companies will continue to change.

Henry Ford once said,

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Perhaps understanding how different generations may view work and family differently can help us be more successful when trying to balance work and family.

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8 thoughts on “Work and Family, A Conflict of Generations?

  1. This early Boomer thinks you nailed this quite well. My working years spanned working for or with three generations, but I learned that if I could find a way to relate personally with older, same age, or younger people in the work place things generally went well for me and the overall objectives of the organizations/agencies/companies were met and often exceeded.

  2. That’s a really interesting table of comparisons between generations. I’m at the younger end of Generation X but can certainly identify with quite a few of the characteristics associated with Generation Y. Maybe it’s a sign of being in denial about having been born in the 70s, albeit within a few months of the start of the 80s 🙂

  3. These are generalizations of course. But they’re intriguing, Scott.

    I wonder how much industry comes into play? And also, that leadership positions are primarily held by men, regardless of generation? What about income levels, which allow for help with family responsibilities – or not?

    I also might comment that there’s a certain amount of (inevitable?) age bias in interpreting this data…

    I suspect if you asked women – regardless of generation – the discussion might get even more interesting. And after all, the beauty of “now” is that more and more men believe we’re in it together, which helps women and families.

    All the more reason for more women in leadership?

    • You always ask such intriguing questions!

      I agree that these are generalizations, and that I’m speaking as a mid Gen Xer, so my interpretation is just that- my interpretation.

      I also agree that it is likely that the gender composition of those in the workforce (and leadership positions) of different generations is a major factor here.

      And, yes, we are in this together!

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