Can you afford to ignore generational differences? | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

Can you afford to ignore generational differences?

May 26, 2011
by Debra Neal, LSC, CSAC II
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Adult consumers span four generations. Does your staff have the understanding to connect with all of them?

At any given moment, a member of any of four distinct generations of adult consumers-The Matures/Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and the Millennials (or Gen Yers)-may knock on the door of your facility.

And, at any moment thereafter, cross-generational dynamics between a provider staff member and a consumer could generate resistance, compromise a treatment outcome, or end a therapeutic relationship altogether.

Later, I'll discuss three practical ways that you can “tune up” the generational understanding and rapport-building skills of staff, skills that build more positive consumer relationships and foster better outcomes. But for now, let me define what I'm talking about.

Cross-generational differences-differences that arise from the experiences, assumptions, and beliefs of succeeding generations of people-often arise between individual clinicians and consumers. Such differences can easily fork into mental and emotional detours that result in undue tension and conflict that, whether spoken or unspoken, disturbs the building of rapport, trust, and respect essential to a therapeutic relationship.

Cross-generational differences can contribute to a higher rate of no-shows, cancellations, and drop outs, or to low consumer satisfaction results. All of these are signs of consumer disappointment, resistance, or passive aggressive participation. Like a bus rattled and slowed by winter potholes, a bumpy generational split disrupts and damages the service provider's helping process with the consumer, making it difficult, uncomfortable, or impossible to achieve the desired treatment outcome.

Here are two examples of how cross-generational differences can compromise bottom-line goals:

Example 1: Stand on your own two feet

Joan, a 57-year-old Boomer clinician, spoke with Megan, a 26-year-old GenY client over the phone prior to the initial session. Megan says she is overwhelmed, extremely anxious, and unable to sleep. Joan enters the initial session with a judgmental curiosity and predetermined agenda to find out why Megan still lives at home with her parents.

Megan, who is not financially self-supporting, increasingly resents her parents when they offer advice, ask questions, or impose rules. Through early sessions with Megan, Joan comes to believe that, if Megan is so dissatisfied and argumentative with her parents, the solution is simple: Megan should move out and stand on her own two feet. But, Megan has missed two of the last four sessions. And, Joan's comments to staff suggest that her client is irresponsible and lazy and needs to be more mature.

Joan's background? She was financially self-sufficient and living on her own since age 21. Is it likely that her biases, beliefs, and sentiments were reflected to her client. Is it possible that these affected Joan's ability to establish a meaningful connection?

If Joan reflected more deeply, through an understanding of the cultural lens of Gen Yers, she might realize that Megan's circumstances fit the profile for this population. Studies show that Generation Yers look to parents for emotional and financial support until late in their 20s and make major life decisions seven or eight years later than their boomer parents did.

Typically, Gen Yers also have financially generous parents, who tend to be more engaged in the affairs of their children than were parents of previous generations. In fact, one source says that significant numbers of Gen Yers expect to live at home with parents after college-rent-free.

Example Two: A lack of commitment

Mason, a Gen Y PhD-track psychology student, resigned an internship that required him to drive 70 miles each way in winter weather. His Boomer supervisor, Mary, expressed shock and resentment at Mason's decision, saying that he “backed out mid-assignment” and “defaulted” on what she maintains was an important and binding commitment. Her organization finds itself in a tough spot, being forced to reassign Mason's clients and psychological testing responsibilities to an already overburdened staff.

To more effectively recruit and supervise future interns, Mary must learn to understand Mason's choice in light of his Gen Y values. Surveys show that Gen Yers may average eight or more jobs by age 32. They tend to be:

  • highly ambitious and optimistic about life, job, and career;

  • less likely to stay with an organization when they perceive that it's not in their immediate best interest;

  • more likely to make decisions without considering potential future costs or impacts.

To members of the Silent or Boomer generations, such behavior is shocking, but there's a reason: Many GenYers never saw their parents' loyalty to job and company pay off. Their parents instead appeared naïve and powerless as they became statistics of globalization. Despite their loyalty and years of service, Gen Y children saw their parents victimized by widespread layoffs and long-term unemployment.

So, the question is important: How capable and sensitive are agency staff when they must work with generationally diverse individuals from ages 20 to 80? Even more important: How comfortable are consumers and clients in these four generations when they must work with your staff? Or, is a 30-year-old clinician really tuned into the needs of a 75-year-old client?

In a faltering economy marked by financial uncertainty, improving the ability of your staff to understand and manage the dynamics of cross-generational relationships opens a tremendous window of opportunity. Managing these obstacles and potential costs is a must for leaders who are serious about improving outcomes for all, as well as financial performance.