More than 1 in 3 American workers are part of the millennial generation, according to the Pew Research Center. This growing contingent of young professionals works alongside supervisors and co-workers who came of age when workplace dynamics were very different. These differences encompass everything from demographics to overall level of reliance on technology.
If left unaddressed, these dynamics can be a recipe for conflict and division, assert Carolyn Greer and Kimberly Key, who have co-presented on the topic of bridging the divisions in the modern workplace at ACA’s annual conference.
“The baton is not passing very well,” says Key, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Austin, Texas. “It’s so systemic and vast and complex, with multiple factors that influence this [issue]. … There’s not just one factor.”
Millennials are “digital natives,” accustomed to internet connectivity and the flexibility afforded by the ability to video chat and send email at any time and to anywhere. The need for a 9-to-5 workday in which someone is physically in the office and at a desk can often seem needless or archaic to these younger professionals. Their older co-workers – baby boomers and members of Generation X – however, grew up in a world where the term “work-life balance” was nonexistent and many people stuck with one company or one career for their entire adult life.
“Not only was working from home not feasible a generation ago, it wouldn’t have been allowed. Expectations were very, very different,” says Greer, a retired licensed professional counselor, a longtime member of the American Counseling Association and a past president of the Texas Counseling Association. “That older worker, they set aside family and said, ‘It’s all about work.’ While millennials say, ‘It’s all about family, and work comes second.’ They opt to work from home and take personal time more often. There may be resentment from older co-workers, [who feel] ‘somebody has to hold down the fort!’ There are differences in expectations: What does it mean to go to work?”
Technology aside, modern workplaces look very different than they did a generation ago, in everything from dress code to the benchmarks used for promotion and advancement, notes Greer. At the same time, more and more women are attending college and joining the workforce, and the role of stay-at-home dad is not as unheard of as in decades past.
The Pew Research Center reports that the U.S. labor force is currently a varied mix of generations that even includes a small percentage of post-millennials, or those born after 1996. Baby boomers are slowly retiring, but a healthy share of the American workforce (25 percent in 2017) is still composed of those born during the post-World War II years (1946 to 1964). Roughly one-third of the labor force hails from Generation X, or those born after the baby boom but before the 1980s. Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1997, have surpassed both generations in recent years to make up the largest percentage of American workers, according to Pew.
The divisions that can arise when generations with different expectations are working side by side is an issue that needs more attention and further discussion within the counseling profession, Key and Greer assert. The duo met through the National Employment Counseling Association, an ACA division in which they are both active. Key also offers training and consulting work on bridging family and work issues.
Key and Greer encourage counselor practitioners to seek professional development in this area, consult with colleagues and get involved in professional counseling organizations such as ACA and NECA. “This is a call to action: Take it to your local professionals, bring it up, talk about it, do research,” Key says.
Counselors as bridge builders
Counselors of all specialties – not just career counselors – should be aware of and sensitive to the generational divisions that can arise in today’s workplaces, say Key and Greer. Practitioners may see clients who present with anxiety and other issues related to generational breakdowns such as feeling overlooked, alienated or misunderstood.
There is potential for resentment to form when younger generations don’t follow “the old-school method of working hard and waiting to earn your promotion” that older workers may expect, Key explains. However, career planning and goal setting for younger generations is unlikely to follow the steady, stable and gradual trajectory toward retirement that older generations came to expect. Instead, they may change jobs and careers several times to fit their family and life choices.
“We’re not a one-career society anymore. Making room for other things is OK,” Key says. “It’s essential for counselors to know about these aspects to identify and treat the issue. … Meet [clients] where they are. Understand what is happening. Be open and tell them that this is a very far-reaching thing, a pervasive issue that can affect people both at work and at home. It’s a very real issue, and we have to work with them to find what our clients need.”
“This is all so complex and vast that people may not even realize they’re affected by it. Let them know that they’re not alone and that many people are going through this,” Key adds. “Address it, and recognize that we [counselors] have the tools to be peacemakers.”
Greer, an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, says she talks about workplace issues in her introduction to family counseling classes. Just as there’s no one definition of “family” anymore, she tells her students, there’s also no one definition of “work.”
“There’s no more going to work and punching a clock for 40 hours. Now, maybe you work from home or do Skype meetings late at night with other time zones. The world has become so different,” Greer says. “We’re in this whole uncharted place. It’s not so simple anymore.”
On helping clients with workplace stress and conflict, from the Counseling Today archives:
- “Could toxic workplaces be killing your clients?”
- “Identifying colors to create a rainbow of cohesion in the workplace for helping professionals”
- “Fertile grounds for bullying”
- “Worrying for a living”
- The National Career Development Association (ncda.org)
- The National Employment Counseling Association (employmentcounseling.org)
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.