Generations, Part 1: Conflict or Cooperation?

Many people don’t realize it, but we are living in an unprecedented age. For the first time in memory, we have 4 generations in the workplace and 5 generations in the marketplace, and more importantly for our consideration, in the church. Why is this important? Because although each of them has the same basic needs, they meet those needs in very different ways, and generally, no generation understands or appreciates the means by which the others pursue their goals. Haydn Shaw is a managing consultant who has spent much of his career helping clients in the business world along with non-profits and government agencies deal with the challenges that come when different generations are forced to work together in business, charity, ministry, and even the home. Shaw has written a very helpful book entitled Sticking Points: how to get 4 generations working together in the 12 places they come apart, and, over the next several weeks, I plan to present the key points of Shaw’s research and see how they can help the church appreciate and work together across our generational differences.

Some might wonder what Shaw’s research really has to say to the church, and whether we should apply business principles and practices to the church. In response to this, I would simply point out that the apostle Paul taught us in Ephesians 4:1-3 that we, as the church, are to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” These basic principles are what undergird Shaw’s approach to dealing with sticking points between the generations, which should become clear as go along.

Sticking Together or Coming Apart

“The most common complaint I hear from frustrated people in all four generations is ‘They don’t get it.’” With this observation, Shaw dives right into the problem of 4 generations jostling together in an organization. There may be many different things that “they” don’t get, from communication to dress code to work ethic to respect. These are just some of the sticking points that Shaw has identified as the common places where different generations run into trouble. But rather than seeing them as problems to be fixed, we need to see them as opportunities to take advantage of each generation’s particular strengths.

No one agrees perfectly on the identity and length of each generation, but Shaw suggests the following breakdown. Traditionalists are those who were born prior to 1945. Baby Boomers were born from 1946 to 1964. Generation X is made up of those born between 1965 and 1980. And the Millennials were born from 1981-2001. Near the transition point between each generation is a group of Cuspers whose births overlap a couple of years in either direction and who embody the characteristics of both generations. For instance, anyone born between 1944 and 1949 would be classified as a Cusper who identifies both with Traditionalist and Baby Boomer values. And then we have those who were born after 2001. No one knows yet whether they are still Millennials or the beginning of a generation still to be named. It is inevitable that we will get stuck at some points as we try to relate to one another in the church, but there is no reason to stay stuck.

Blue Screen of Death: The Difficulty of Leading Four Generations

Life is more complicated now that it used to be. In the past, even just a century ago, there was a much more clear transition of money and power between the generations. The biggest reason for this is that people are living longer, a lot longer. The average life expectancy in 1900 was just 47 years, which meant that most young people could wait their turn, but now those same young people will watch their parents and grandparents work ahead of them for several more decades. The second reason things are more complicated is that information is much more readily available today. In the past, those at the top had the access to the information necessary to make decisions, but now every generation can get the same information with a few taps on their phone’s touchscreen. And the third reason is that since the Baby Boom, each generation has been taught to question authority, search for the best deals, and expect a good show. The truth is that each generation has influenced the one which follows, and yet manages to be surprised when the children they raised want to change the way things are done.

The first way of dealing with it is to ignore them. This is how most new generations are handled until they grow large enough to swing the balance of power. The problem is that if you ignore a younger generation, eventually you run out of older ones. So when we can no longer ignore them, we often try to fix them, to make them like ourselves. But this approach wastes precious time and resources and creates animosity between the generations where the older ones disparage the younger and the younger grow to resent the older. The 3rd approach is to cut a deal with them. Every generation does this to some extent and it can be effective for a while, but it is far better if we can get out ahead of the shift and lead them. You can’t cut a deal with everyone, but you can lead them by loving them. This means we have to stop trying to change them and start trying to understand them so that we can appreciate them.

“The truth is,” says Shaw, “we were raised in different countries, but we don’t realize it.” This is the basic premise we need to grasp. “Once we understand others, we realize that if we had been born where they were born and raised in the situation they were raised in, we would think a lot more like they do. Maybe, just maybe, they’re not so weird; maybe their differences have to do with their experiences. Maybe they came from a different world. And then it clicks: that’s where we must start, no matter what generational differences we face. Understanding is the antidote to the relational poison of fixing.”

So what is it that “they” don’t get? Whose culture do you need to begin to understand in order to overcome a generational sticking point in your workplace, your family, or your church?

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