X, Y, BOOM! Generations at Work

Barbara Richter

“Those young people just don’t understand what we fought to achieve.”

“Those experienced teachers just want to talk about ‘the good old days.”

That’s the sound of generations colliding.

Some researchers believe that people are defined as much by their times as by their parents or upbringing – perhaps more so. Regardless of differences in backgrounds members of the same age  group share a common social environment that helps shape who they are and how they relate to their work, their colleagues, their families and their friends. Members of a generation experience the same historical events, technological advances and economic shifts. They worship the same heroes, listen to their own music and create their unique fashions.

Researchers have classified the four generations populating our workplaces and our unions according to the time period in which they were born: Traditionalists –1920 to 1943; Baby Boomers –1943 to 1960; Gen Xers –1960 to 1980; and Echo Boomers (Nexters, Millennials, Gen Y) –1980 to 2000.1 Social scientists are scrambling to understand the impact of these generational divisions on our lives.

One thing is certain: generational differences can lead to conflict. Understanding the differences can lessen that conflict.


Forged by two world wars, the Depression of the 1930s, and the  Korean War in the early 1950s, Traditionalists were raised in  long-established family struc- tures:  male  breadwinner,  mother  at home. In their era, advanced technology meant rotary dial phones, radios, phonographs and movies with sound.

Traditionalists are  hardworking and loyal – to their country, faith,  institu- tions, employer and  family. For them rules  and  duty  come  before  pleasure. Respecting authority, they accept a hierarchical  chain-of-command  leadership style. They believe in “saving for a rainy day”  –  forgoing  today’s  pleasures  for tomorrow’s security. They are  the last generation to embrace this ethic.

When traditionalists became teachers, one-room schools dotted the  province. Hired on individual contracts, they had little  say  about  their  wages  or  working conditions. Once married, women were   forced  to  resign;  if  allowed  to stay, they worked on temporary annual contracts. Rural teachers were expected to clean and maintain their classrooms. It was only during wartime, with men off fighting,  that married women were allowed to work outside the home; in fact, they were encouraged to do so, to make up for the labour shortage.


Born  after World War II, Baby  Boomers are part of an enormous population bulge that, because of sheer numbers, had a significant social and economic impact from the outset. Between 1950 and 1951 enrolment in Ontario’s elementary schools jumped from 19,500 children to 42,000, then rose to 58,000 in 1952. As part of this big  crowd, Boomers learned to be competitive but also collaborative. They had to compete for