Of Tattoos, Naps and iPods in the Office

Baby Boomer administrators share their observations and frustrations about working with and managing their "young" staffs.
July 11, 2007

The gloves that Susan Little wears each winter were a Christmas gift from her husband in 1965. Now, many of the employees who work for Little in the student financial aid office at the University of Georgia are far younger than her gray and navy blue hand warmers, and as a manager, she regularly confronts issues raised by the generation gap.

One employee asked Little about the office’s tattoo and piercing policy, worried not about her own small tattoo but about heavily adorned future job applicants in their 20s and 30s.

Another tried listening to his iPod while he worked -- until he got caught when co-workers heard him singing along.

More than just the sort of office joke that gets passed through the ranks and told at lunch, these are the stories of generational differences, of the contrasts between workers in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and those young enough to be their children, grandchildren -- or at least younger sibling.

Not long ago Pam W. Fowler, director of financial aid at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, went so far as to fire a young employee who was caught watching Internet videos and taking naps in his cubicle.

“It wasn’t just that this young man was doing these things,” she said, “but that they were hurting his productivity and noticeable to other people in the office.”

Fowler and Little were two administrators ­­-- Baby Boomers or older -- who used panel discussions at the annual convention of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington this week as a chance to vent about generational differences in the work place and to trade advice on how to lessen the divide.

Although Monday afternoon’s “I’m Your Boss, Not Your Mom” session was supposed to be about issues of emotional maturity that come up in offices, especially during conflicts, presenters and audience members used it as an opportunity to hash out issues of age in the workplace.

Fowler said that in thinking about work place diversity, she considers not just gender, race and background but also age, however difficult as it may be for her as a 50-something.

An under-30 administrator from upstate New York asked for advice in dealing with a peer many years her senior who seemed to be unwilling to treat her as an equal because of her age. The audience told her to document the colleague's behavior and to talk to their shared supervisor about the strained relationship. Another administrator asked for tips on how to get a stubborn worker in her 30s to realize that the administrator would never promote her.

In “How Can Your Office Operate When Your Winter Gloves Are Older Than Most of Your Staff Members,” a session on Tuesday morning, Little and three other administrators in their 40s or older tried to get a grasp on the issues and ideas that make the “young people” in their offices -- the Generation Xers and the Nexters (among other terms for these age groups), born from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s -- tick.

The conversation included talk of e-mail, cell phones, iPods and other technology, and was punctuated by a couple of PowerPoint bloopers, as the presenters almost proudly fumbled ahead or back in their computer-aided presentations. Audience members, mostly middle aged, yelled out their advice to get the slides back on track. “Press the down arrow,” one near the front said. “Just click out of it,” another audience member shouted.

Those moments were indicative of the generational schisms that quietly separate co-workers. Use and understanding of technology is one vivid and easily caricatured example, but issues arise in terms of views on work ethic, authority, leadership and lots of other values that come into play in the work place -- not just in college and university financial aid offices but throughout academic and non-academic settings.

Despite differences among members of the same generation, Mariko Gomez, director of financial aid and scholarships at Texas State University at San Marcos, emphasized that there are shared experiences that unite people of the same generation and may shape who they are in the work place.

While Boomers, she said, are optimistic and driven by a love/hate relationship with authority, Xers are more likely to be skeptical, interested in finding a balance between work and unimpressed by authority. Nexters, meanwhile, are hopeful, participative and respectful of authority.

To give the older people in attendance a sense of some of the things that are in the lives of their young workers but probably not theirs, Gomez presented a list of Web sites, such as Yahoo’s data aggregator Pipes and PBwiki, a site that allows for the creation of customizable Wikipedia-like references on any topic. But the list was created by a young member of her staff, she conceded, “and I have absolutely no clue what [these sites] are.” She said that when planning her trip to Washington for the conference, she thought of checking the weather during a news program’s national weather segment. The same staff member who made the website list suggested that Gomez check the weather online to get more detailed information about what to pack.

Linda Joy Clemons, director of financial aid services at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, listed a series of acronyms that have long since gone out of use in the financial aid field. “Remember the good old days,” she said to the assent of much of the audience, reminding them that there was a not-too-distant time when aid officers shared the new technology with each other -- calculators.

Now calculators, along with just about every other technology Boomers have encountered, are passé, she said, before presenting a question to the audience. “I’ve heard e-mail is going away – what’s going to replace it?”

“MySpace,” a Boomer shouted.

“IM,” several others said, some further clarifying that the initials stand for instant messaging -- “a fast kind of e-mail.”

The younger people in the audience didn’t answer.


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