March 1, 2007

Across the Generational Divide

Baby boomer managers face a challenge adjusting to the work style of younger recruits.

The gulf between generations can be a mile wide at Chicago Tube & Iron Co., where younger workers sometimes irritate Baby Boomer managers by wanting to take off for the day if they’ve completed an assigned task or something more interesting comes up.

“It can become disruptive,” says Sue Hamilton, vice president of administration, who says the Romeoville, Illinois-based service center company was forced to spell out that workers had to be on the job between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If they get their work done early, they can help with other assignments, she says.

Chicago Tube & Iron and other metals companies are just beginning to come to grips with generational differences in work style. Generation gaps are nothing new, but it has been a long time since many metals companies were forced to hire a significant number of employees, especially managers. Baby Boomer retirements and the accelerated pace of change in recent decades have widened the gap for metals companies.

Other industries—from the youth-dominated tech and entertainment sectors to retail and consulting—have had longer to adjust as the demographics of their workforce shifted.


But, “it comes as a culture shock to our industry,” says William Vitucci, 46, vice president and chief financial officer of VITCO Steel Supply Corp. in Posen, Illinois. Between long-time employees and new hires, “we are seeing a very big gap,” he says.

With an influx of new hires made possible by the 2004 industry upturn, the work style differences have sometimes been jarring for Boomer managers in the metals industry, many of whom are set in their workplace routines.

Every individual has to be judged on her or his own merits, of course, and no general characterization can adequately describe the attitudes of an entire generation. That said, human resources officers and others who study workforce trends have identified generational characteristics that metals companies should not be surprised to find as they begin hiring again.

For example, Millennials, the label used for the generation born between 1977 and 1998—and to some extent the more senior Generation X-ers—often expect quicker advancement and more flexible schedules than the workers who came before them. In some cases, younger workers don’t want to put in the long hours they see logged by Baby Boomers, who belong to the generation born during the two decades following the end of World War II. In other cases, Millennials are happy to put in long hours, but may expect the flexibility that technology affords, such as working from home or other off-site locations.

Baby Boomers, in contrast, are used to workplaces shaped by the technologies and employment structures of the past. They are accustomed to reporting to an office and often believe those long hours at the desk or in the plant are the prerequisite for getting ahead.

It’s not that generational strife is leading to brawls in the lunchroom or setbacks in the market. But misunderstandings and pettiness among employees can be demoralizing and undermine the teamwork a company needs to flourish and expand. 

Some companies are still in the early throes of generational transition and mostly are concerned about communicating expectations to iPod-toting younger workers who seem from another planet. Others appear quicker to embrace younger workers for their fresh perspectives and ease with technology, which may enable them to complete tasks in less time than Boomers.

“The best workplaces capitalize on the strengths of all the different generations,” says Maureen Mason, 57, vice president of human resources at Olympic Steel Inc., in Bedford Heights, Ohio.


Today’s workforce spans four generations, ranging from the Silent Generation, shaped by the Cold War and frozen food, to Millennials, raised in the shadow of terrorism and glued to video games and portable media players.

While the dates defining each generation vary, they are generally described this way:

  • The Silent Generation, whose members were born between 1933 and 1945, comprise 5% of the workforce. They came of age in the era of post-World War II prosperity, and tend to be disciplined and prepared for delayed gratification. As the oldest segment, they have been willing to reinvent themselves, says Seattle consultant Diane Thielfoldt of The Learning Café.
  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, who make up 45% of the workforce, often were influenced by Vietnam and Watergate. With their large numbers, it was hard to land good jobs and advance. So they put in long hours and worked to excel. It’s often said that Boomers live to work.
  • Generation X-ers, born between 1965 and 1976, comprise 40% of the workforce. Some members of this generation were raised as latchkey kids by divorced parents. Others watched parents lose jobs in the first waves of corporate downsizing. They are more cynical about the value of corporate loyalty and have sought to develop skills that are transferable to different companies. Sometimes, they feel they get no credit in the workplace because they are overshadowed by Boomers and squeezed by Millennials. 
  • Millennials, born between 1977 and 1998, account for 10% of the workforce, but soon will be entering it in increasing numbers. They are confident, at home with technology and prone to multi-tasking. They seek mentoring, but sometimes are viewed as requiring too much feedback and direction by their Gen X elders, Thielfoldt says.They aren’t impressed by hierarchy or someone’s job title, and instead think, “Just because I’m wearing flip-flops doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain,” she adds.

    In addition, many Millennials are accustomed to rapid gratification, says Robert Morison, co-author of “Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent,” and executive vice president of Texas-based research, education and advisory services company Concours Group. “They tend to want to dive in and have work be exciting,” he says.


Because Gen X is a small generation with only 49 million members, and because nearly 78 million Baby Boomers will be retiring in large numbers over the next decade, Millennials are in a good bargaining position as they land their first jobs. As they become a bigger percentage of the workplace, their style will be hard to ignore—eventually dominating.

Younger workers use technology to give themselves more freedom by working nights and weekends if they choose. Younger generations “don’t know the difference between work time and personal time,” Morison says, and the two tend to overlap. They may work during what is traditionally personal time, and conduct personal business during what is typically work time—something Baby Boomers might resent. Boomers struggled to balance work and family, and may not be comfortable blurring those lines.

Younger workers also value learning a variety of skills to become as marketable as possible, says Samuel Chun, director of custom programs at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s usually counterproductive to pigeonhole them into a single job, he says.

“These employees don’t aspire to work for one company for 20 years, merely to be downsized out of a job with only a limited skill base,” Chun says. “They consider flexibility and job mobility to be important assets.”

A 2004 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Virginia, found 40% of human resource professionals were aware of intergenerational conflict in their organizations. Among organizations with more than 500 employees, that number jumped to nearly 60% who were aware of conflicts. The greatest sources of reported conflict were different opinions on acceptable work hours and a lack of respect among different generations. The study found members of older generations define employee dedication in terms of punctuality and hours spent on the job, while members of younger generations view dedication in terms of the quality and quantity of the work completed.

Top consulting firms—such as New York-based Deloitte & Touche and Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Hewitt Associates LLC—and Forbes 500 companies have experimented for years with flexible hours and systems to enable employees to work from home. Minneapolis-based electronics retailer Best Buy Co. has gone so far as to eliminate formal work hours for headquarters employees in a program it calls “results-only work environment.”


Of course, it’s not fair to compare solutions generated by larger companies with the ability of smaller companies to respond to generational differences. Many metals companies are smaller and don’t have the large staff that makes flexible scheduling possible. Their human resources department may be quite small. Working the shop floor usually requires that employees report there for a standard shift and overtime when necessary.

At VITCO, a service center with just 35 employees, Vitucci says he has interviewed potential employees who want to work on projects or on a quota system so that they can leave when they’ve met their goals. They resist the standard eight-hour day. Vitucci worries that if someone meets their quota in 10 days, they may wile away the remaining 20 days of the month. “We aren’t looking for complacent people,” he says.

But he concedes that this attitude is “creating difficulties to attract new talent.” It can be problematic even once someone comes on board. “There’s been turnover recently in our sales department because
people aren’t wanting to adhere to our schedule,” Vitucci says.

Other frequently identified Millennial traits also prove irritating to Boomer managers at metals companies. With expectations for rapid advancement, workers under 30 sometimes want to get into a career without paying their dues, says Chicago Tube & Iron’s Hamilton, a 52-year-old Boomer.

She observes that Millennials—a generation shaped by video games—sometimes seek the instant gratification that a computer sports contest can bring. With games, if the player isn’t happy with the results, he or she can just start over, Hamilton says. “Sometimes when you’re working, you don’t get a do-over.”

Sometimes, a family enterprise is helped by having members of different generations working in the business. At Tampa, Florida-based McNichols Co., Chairman and CEO Gene McNichols recalls putting in long days overseeing expansion of the service center during the 1980s.

“My children may have seen their father working way too many hours when they were young, and they don’t want to repeat that,” the 59-year-old admits. “I worked six days [a week] a lot of my career. The children don’t want to raise their families that way.” Today, son Scott, 33, is executive vice president and general manager, and son Steven, 29, is vice president of business development.

While he’s quick to acknowledge his father’s sacrifice, Steven McNichols seldom travels on company business and says, “I’m more involved in my son’s life.” Yet his workday may run well into the night. It’s not unusual for him to go home, have dinner, play ball with his 2 1/2-year-old son and then hunker down in front of the computer to continue his work.

At McNichols, Baby Boomers occasionally think a younger person isn’t working because he or she isn’t in the office. Steven McNichols says older employees will sometimes come to him and complain that someone left 30 minutes early. “I almost feel like saying, ‘So?’’’ he says.

Millennials at McNichols may get a sympathetic ear from Larry F. Jones, 59, senior vice president, who oversees human resources. “Younger workers want to be engaged,” he says. “They want to understand how they affect the bottom line; how they can make a difference. They also want to be offered opportunities to learn and grow. The more marketable you make them, the more likely they are to stay.”


Nucor Corp., based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has had success bridging the gap. It recruits and promotes younger workers, but on the understanding that a steel mill has no room for amenities like flexible scheduling time.

Millennials have been educated about “idealistic corporate systems and how they work,” says Gen X-er Dan Krug, 35, manager of human resources and organizational development. “But a steel mill runs 24/7.”

Employees work in teams and are paid for performance, Krug says. For those who are talented and motivated, there are no boundaries. It’s possible to move into areas you want to learn and move up quickly. Turnover is only 5%. “We would be appalled if we didn’t hold on to 80% to 90% of employees,” he says.

Robert James, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering graduate from Pennsylvania State University working as a project engineer at Nucor Steel-Arkansas, acknowledges generational differences often surface.

“There’s a certain sense that the generation is made of freeloaders and those who don’t care much about their career. We actually have to prove ourselves just to get to a neutral level,” he says.

James suggests this distrust stems from Boomers with children at home around his age who spend their time hanging around the house or partying. The parents carry their exasperation into the workplace.

His own attitude was shaped by his father, who held a white-collar job in the coal industry, put in long hours and took work home. His health suffered as a result. In contrast, James says he is health-conscious and works out at the gym during his lunch hour. “Baby Boomers live to work. I work to live. I work because it is something to do and contribute. It’s a means to a lifestyle outside of work,” he says.

James says he’s found that Boomers are willing to help him. “A lot of people assume a fatherly role”—both scolding and rewarding him for his work.


It is true that some younger workers have to learn patience, says James’ co-worker, Andrea Schmidt, 25, a cold mill metallurgist. She has seen some younger Nucor employees who want everything given to them, or who work hard for six months and then expect a promotion. “At six months, you’re just learning the basics,” she says.

Olympic Steel strives to strike a balance among the generations, drawing on the institutional memory of Boomers while leaning on the alacrity and technical sophistication of Millennials.

In recent years, Olympic has hired Gen X-ers with several years of workplace experience, as well as Millennials out of college. When Gen X-ers graduated from college, the metals industry wasn’t doing much hiring and was viewed as something of a dinosaur. “Many Generation X-ers see it as attractive now,” Mason says. For certain positions, having several years of experience is crucial, even if it comes from outside the metals industry. That’s important as the older generations prepare to leave the workforce and there’s a need to transfer knowledge, she says.

Recent college graduates “are very focused on doing things faster, quicker and easier than we’ve been doing them,” which can lead to process improvements, Mason says. But they lack the knowledge that the older generation has, and that can’t easily be replaced.

One new employee, Giuseppe Testa, appreciates the help Boomers can provide. Testa, 24, was hired as an inside sales representative in July by Olympic’s Connecticut Division after graduating from Quinnipiac University. He received a baptism by fire when his co-worker was called to serve in the National Guard. Testa didn’t have the chance to follow her around and ease into the job. He had to jump in and take over her accounts a few weeks after joining Olympic.

Fortunately, the 68-year-old co-worker who sits next to him helped with his institutional knowledge of customers and their histories. “He helps me all the time with steel questions; I help him with computer stuff. The knowledge he has—you can’t replace that. I’m trying to soak it in.”

With the irreplaceable knowledge that many Baby Boomers in the metals industry have, it will be necessary to fully utilize their skills and begin the transfer of knowledge to the younger generations, Mason says. “Our business is going to have to wean itself away from structured rules that inhibit employees from fully contributing to the business. We need to focus on what’s important: getting work done and achieving results.”