Generational Issues

Today's working environment includes four generations of people and numerous combinations of race, gender and belief systems. CPA firms must understand these changes to prepare for the future.

April 21, 2011
from PCPS Committee

The makeup of today's firms has changed and will continue to change into the next decade. Our environment includes four generations of workers and numerous combinations of race, gender and belief systems. CPA firms must understand all of these changes to prepare for the future. At aicpa.org/PCPS, you will find resources from the PCPS Human Capital Center, Next Generation Consulting, Inc. and the AICPA's Minority Initiatives Committee that will assist you in addressing the integration of various cultures among your team members.

Why Do Generational Issues Exist?

Let's start by introducing the four generations at work in the 21st century: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. Each has its own perspective, sometimes clashing with one another, about work and their roles at work, and can be understood through a simple comparison to psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" theory:

The Silent Generation was born and came of age during the Great Depression and WWII, when securing food, clothing and shelter satisfied basic safety needs.

Baby Boomers, the children of the Silent Generation, set their sights higher because their basic necessities and safety needs were consistently provided by their parents.

During the next decades, when emotionally charged politics was at its peak during the civil rights movement, baby boomers developed the needs for love, affection, belonging and a sense of community — the next level on Maslow's hierarchy. This group became the first of the generations whose members were sometimes known as workaholics. With two parents in the workforce, the baby boomers' children, known as Generation Xers, developed heightened esteem needs, such as confidence, competence, achievement, independence and freedom. In the workplace, this generation is likely to question their leaders and express their desire for independence and self-reliance.

Millennials are often touted as the "Me" generation. Self-actualization, as described by Maslow, is a need that people have to be authentic and aware of their inner selves, to transcend their cultural conditioning, to discover their callings or destinies and to appreciate beauty and other good things in nature and life. Millennials do all of these things, such as learning new languages, waiting longer to get married and taking time off now rather than waiting for retirement to travel, explore and experience life.

When you add all of these work ethics to the same work environment, generational friction is likely to occur, particularly in the following areas:

  • Time. While the Silent Generation seeks to be on time every time and focuses on the billable hour, later generations focus more on productivity and value.
  • Technology. While earlier generations feel that young people rely too heavily on technology to communicate, rather than participate in face-to-face meetings, the younger generations counter that older people don't use technology effectively to minimize the need for the face-to-face interaction, which some believe interrupts productivity.
  • Relationships with others. Older generations rarely ask for special treatment or question authority, a result of being raised in times of war; while younger generations don't trust authority and often question it rather than follow it.

(Source: PCPS Human Capital Toolkit)


By now, you may be wondering how to address these intergenerational issues. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use the short Generational Quiz, which is intended for everyone. Take it yourself and pass it along to everyone in the firm. The lessons learned are a brilliant introduction to the changing makeup of our workforce.
  • Use the Next Generation Firm Employee Engagement Survey to gauge team members' responses in six dimensions of employee engagement:
    • Trust, Management, Development, Connection, Rewards and Life-work Balance.

  • Start a book club focused on generations at work. Live First, Work Second; Generations at Work; and Free Agent Nation are great resources.
  • Assign an Intergenerational Issues team to help raise awareness of generation gaps at work.
  • Begin the process of becoming a Next Generation Firm. A Next Generation Firm is a place where all generations are valued, and the workplace brings out the best in each person.

Becoming a Next Generation Firm Leader

Next Generation Firms are unique from other firms in two ways:

  • They are high-performing workplaces, and they typically outperform their competitors financially.
  • They have reputations as great places to work: turnover rates are very low, there are fewer job vacancies, and employee satisfaction is high across all generations. Becoming a Next Generation Firm starts with leadership. There are six dimensions of Next Generation Firm Leaders:
    • Trust Leaders communicate often and openly with employees at all levels. They share information or insight and believe that trust goes both ways.
    • Management Leaders mentor and offer insight to the firm's up-and-coming leaders. They set and communicate clear, ambitious goals.
    • Development Leaders create an atmosphere of growth and learning. Training is aligned with developing the skills that are valued by clients and are necessary for job performance.
    • Connection Leaders connect with their employees on social and emotional levels. They want to work with people they like.
    • Life-work Balance Leaders encourage employees to have a life outside of work, while still pursuing career goals.
    • Rewards Leaders pay fairly and give credit where credit is due. They recognize a job well done and don't hesitate to give a pat on the back.


The PCPS Human Capital Center provides a self-assessment tool called Becoming a Next Generation Firm Leader that gives you the opportunity to assess yourself, reflect on your leadership strengths and opportunities and create a plan of action to transform your organization into a Next Generation Firm.

This article has been excerpted from PCPS's Human Capital Series on Generational Issues. View the full article here (PDF).

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