After four years of surviving plant closings and work-related moves in her job with General Motors, Gail Dawson decided to leave the company and pursue a master's degree in business administration.
Her father thought that was a crazy idea.
"My father was born in 1928, and he believed that - if you're lucky - you go to college, come out, get with a good company and stay there your entire career," said Dr. Dawson, a 42-year-old assistant professor of management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"But I could see my job with GM was not going to be secure for my entire career, and I wanted to create that security in other ways - through education," Dr. Dawson said.
The four distinct generations that share offices in today's workplace have very differ- ent ideas about how to build a career, said Greg Hammill, the retired director of employment for AT&T who wrote an article on the four-generation workplace during a five-year stint at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
As the range of generations in the workplace grows - and the experiences that define them become more divergent - the understanding of everything from company loyalty to work ethic is shifting, he said.
"When I talk to my kids about working at AT&T 30-some years, they say, 'Why would you do that?'" Mr. Hammill said.
Ron Harris, a baby boomer who is the senior manager of work force diversity for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said that sort of job longevity largely is a thing of the past.
"That gold watch mentality is not there anymore with companies or with individuals," he said.
THE FOUR GENERATIONS
The oldest generation of workers, the veterans born before 1946, grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II and have a strong sense of loyalty, stability and sacrifice, Mr. Hammill said. The massive wave of baby boomers that followed from 1946 to 1964 came along during a time of heady economic expansion and had a sense of limitless possibilities.
Because they are a huge group, from 78 million to about 80 million strong, boomers also learned to be intensely competitive and focused on work, he said.
Robert W. Wendover, the managing director of the Center for Generational Studies, said members of generation X, born from 1965 to 1980, were the first to be reared in largely two-career households and the first to see layoffs, consolidations and jobs moving overseas become the norm.
"People in their 30s say, 'Both my parents worked, they put in 20 years and got laid off, anyway," he said.
The lesson generation X learned is to seek balance between work and life, said Georgia Duke, 39, a senior communications specialist for McKee Foods.
"We are the generation that coined the term 'get a life,'" she said. "My father was with the same company for 40 years, and while I admire that tremendously, I think younger generations are going to follow their bliss."
The youngest workers, generation Y born after 1980, have grown up with unprecedented access to information and technology. They are willing to move around professionally until they "find their niche," said Lindsey Powell, a 24-year-old counselor who recently left her job at Youth Villages to work at Signal Centers.
Ms. Powell, who also attends graduate school at UTC, worked a year and a half at Youth Villages before starting work this week at Signal Centers. That's just part of the nature of generation Y, said James Fowler, 24, a supervisor at Youth Villages.
"We're in a generation where it's not unusual to change careers multiple times in your life," he said. "We just hired someone who was in international affairs and switched to a social work environment and plans eventually to switch to law."
KEEPING UP WITH THE WORK FORCE
The difference among the generations in their attitudes toward work, Mr. Wendover said, is fundamental.
"An older person looks at a job as a calling. They have a high level of identity with their work," he said. "Younger people, they go home and they don't take it with them. They don't tie their identity to their job."
There are two reasons employers need to learn to understand and accommodate their employees from different generations, Mr. Wendover said: productivity and turnover.
Workers from every generation are less productive if they feel frustrated on the job, and younger workers are very likely to take their training and walk away from such situations, he said.
"It's not an emotional decision for them," he said. "They say, 'Don't take it personally when I leave, you've been a good employer, but it's time for me to go.'"
Stephen Ruffin, a 46-year-old consumer care manager at McKee, said he manages and works with people across the age spectrum.
"If an employee is not satisfied, they're going to go somewhere else," he said. "As employers we have to be aware of the wide range of people that work for you."
Mr. Hammill saw that situation at AT&T when several middle managers came to him and said some of their younger employees had asked to work from home one day a week, he said. The company turned down the requests, but Mr. Hammill urged managers them to rethink that decision, he said.
He had the managers spend a day a week working from home themselves, to see how it worked.
"So they did it and they just thought that it was the best thing in the world," he said. "You have to understand, if you say 'no' to employees, you potentially lose highly qualified, really talented people."
At First Tennessee Bank, accommodating workers of every age is part of the company's culture, said Linda Todd, the marketing director for the region. The company has been recognized as a top place to work by groups as diverse as Working Mother magazine and AARP, she said.
"Boomers are now taking care of their parents, younger families always have issues with children, and the company works very well with employees to accommodate the situation," Ms. Todd said.
Rochelle Johnson, the bank's employee services relationship manager for the region, said that sort of approach is key to a successful business.
"Recruiting talented, high-performing people is a challenge," she said. "Once we get qualified applicants we want to retain them so we grow as a business."
TEACHING THE LESSON
Danette Scudder, 32, teaches utility companies across the region about ways to bridge the generation gap in her job as training administration manager for the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association.
One of the complaints she often hears from older workers is that younger workers aren't as willing to put in long hours and are more likely to take time off, Ms. Scudder said.
"Older people take great pride in never taking sick or vacation time, but they worked at a time when they could accrue those days," she said. "Now there's a greater emphasis on not sacrificing what's important to you personally."
She also tries to remind older workers that they are the ones who raised the younger generations, Ms. Scudder said.
"Most of their values and social norms were shaped by their parents, families, churches," she said. "You are part of that. Your children are working somewhere and people are having these complaints about them."
The goal, Ms. Scudder said, is to give members of each generation insight into what the others expect and appreciate.
"If you want to keep good employees, you need to know what's important to them," Ms. Scudder said.
And workers of every age are a critical component to success, said Ms. Johnson of First Tennessee. The company employs workers who range from 18 into their 70s, she said.
"We need a whole team of employees because we have cross-generational customers," she said.
Mr. Ruffin of McKee said the payoff comes when workers feel appreciated, and that benefits the employer.
"They are an investment," he said. "People are your most precious resource."