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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 attention and recognition.

Raised by parents who fought “a war for  freedom,”  Boomers  were  instilled with a sense of mission. They would get a good education, achieve more than their parents had, and make the world a better place. They grew up in the years marked by the Cold War, the space race, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, women’s liberation, the Pill, the sexual revolution and the beginnings of  the environmental movement. They are the generation with a cause.

Boomers   also  experienced  rapid technological change: TVs with several channels, transistor radios, hi-fi and stereo, touch-tone phones, and movies in Technicolor, 3-D and Cinemascope. At work there were hand calculators, photocopiers  and  mainframe  computers. They were the first generation to be constantly exposed to mass advertising.

Boomers grew up in a society that was relatively affluent and rich in opportunity. They were optimistic;  believing  that  all  problems  could and should be solved, they created the self-help industry.

The term workaholic belongs to them. Work is a source of personal fulfilment and a measure of their self-worth. Putting in extra hours is a sign of  success. Their friends tend to be colleagues from work. For many the decision to retire will be difficult because they fear the accompanying isolation and loss of identity.

Boomers started teaching in the late 1960s, a time of great change in Ontario’s education system.  County-wide  school  boards  were  created, and new schools built. Women won the right to statutory pregnancy leave and the right to wear pantsuits  to  school.  Teachers  walked  off  their jobs for a day in December 1973 to protest unfair bargaining legislation and eventually won the right to bargain collectively and to strike. Collective agreements became legally binding contracts that outlined rights, benefits and working conditions.

Boomers, with their sense of mission and commitment to a cause, believe their efforts to improve teachers’ working lives made the world a better place. They are very sensitive to scepticism about or criticism of these achievements.

Gen Xers

Gen Xers are pragmatic, adaptable, techno-literate and good at multitasking. They grew up dealing with change. The children of early Boomers, they have always been in the Boomers’ shadow. Many were raised in single-parent families, or with both parents working, and are often described as the generation that raised itself. The term “latchkey kids” was coined for them.

Gen Xers are very comfortable with changing technology, having grown up with personal computers, video games, remote controls and TV with 200 channels. Defining events in their lives included the end of the Cold War, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, free trade agreements, AIDS, economic uncertainty, increased drugs use and violence, and the faces of missing children on milk cartons.

Gen Xers  are  a  sceptical  generation  –  they need  proof.  They  grew  up  seeing institutions and revered public figures wracked by scandal. As a result they respect competence and have more faith in themselves and their peer group than in external authority. They are loyal to their relationships but not necessarily to institutions. They are the first generation to date in groups.

Teachers who  are  Gen Xers work hard  and spend cautiously, having begun their careers with heavy education debt loads. They know they are the first generation that may not surpass their parents economically.

Gen  Xers  also  want  balance:  they  are  not prepared  to  sacrifice  their  health,  marriages, relationships, and personal lives to career as their parents did. Freedom is their ultimate reward. They  seek  autonomy,  a  comfortable  schedule, and time to spend with family and friends (who are generally not people from work).

Gen Xers started teaching in the mid-1980s, and prefer a casual and relaxed workplace. They see many Baby Boomer achievements – like protection for seniority – as an impediment rather than a protection against indiscriminate layoffs.

They have also experienced radical changes in the profession and in the workplace: the recession of the early 90s; the “social contract” imposed by the provincial NDP government; the subsequent election of a Conservative government that cut education funding; the creation of a professional regulatory body, the College of Teachers; school board amalgamations; the amalgamation of teachers’ federations and the removal of principals as members of the federation; new curriculum and standardized testing.

Echo Boomers  a planned childhood

Now just beginning to enter the profession. Echo Boomers are the children of Gen Xers, younger Boomers, or Boomers who  chose to have children later in life. Echos grew up in a time when there was an emphasis on child-rearing practices and the importance of the early years. Their parents planned their lives and were active participants in every aspect of it. They are the first generation to grow up with personal calendars and daytimers. Echos were always welcomed into adult company. Their  participation in family decision-making was encouraged and appreciated. They experienced a wide variety of family structures: two parents, single parents, same- sex parents and blended families. For them, diversity is a given.

Echo Boomers grew up in a world of email, the Internet and globalization. Some researchers believe that because of  their  early exposure to technology, the brains of Echos developed differently so as to make them super-efficient multi-taskers.  Simultaneously text-messaging, listening to downloaded MP3 music files, writing an essay on Hamlet, clipping their toenails and tuning out nagging parents is all in a day’s work.

Echo Boomers  also  grew up  with  increasing school violence, gangs, economic uncertainty, a shrinking middle class, an increase in poverty and homelessness and a war on terror. Nevertheless they are a confident generation: optimistic, flexible, street-smart, sociable and civic-minded. They enjoy working with other idealistic people. Some researchers say they dis- play many of the early ideals of young Boomers (before they got jobs and credit cards), but are more practical in their approach. They are more likely to work for change within a system than to take to the streets against it.

On entering the workforce, Echo Boomers show a keen sense of participation and entitlement and may be quite surprised when their suggestions for workplace improvements aren’t welcomed or acted upon. They respect authority but are not in awe of it, and will treat the receptionist and the company president with an equal amount of respect.

“Paying  your  dues” is  an  alien  concept  and Echos  expect  quick  career  advancement.  They want meaningful work.  Having  grown up with attentive parents, video games and the Internet– all providing immediate feedback – they expect the workplace to deliver the same instant gratification. They expect respect. If they feel badly treated, they will broadcast their grievance to a worldwide network of peers at the click of a mouse.

Echo  Boomers  are  entering  the  education workplace in  a  time  of  relative peace. Stories of the battles fought and  gains  made and lost seldom resonate with them. They are eager and enthusiastic about building the optimistic future they  believe awaits them, and they waste little time and effort in reflecting on the past.

Like cultural and racial diversity, generational differences bring unique and valuable strengths and  perspectives to  the  workplace and  to  the federation. By understanding, appreciating and building on it, we can enhance the potential of all to  contribute to the profession and the federation.

Bridging the generational divide

  • Don’t judge the actions or statements of others through your own generational lens. Don’t make assumptions; ask for a discussion.
  • Resolve that for one week you will not start any sentence with the phrase “If you had been there in …”
  • Ask seasoned staff members about their experiences in their early years of teaching.
  • Seek out a colleague from another generation and discuss an issue facing education.
  • Offer to help a younger colleague set up an activity for students. Ask an older colleague for suggestions.
  • Cultural icons are never universal; they belong to a specific time and place. Don’t assume your colleagues will recognize generational markers like Howdy Doody, Polkaroo, or Barney the Dinosaur.
  • Suggest a staff discussion about generational differences.


Adams, Michael. Better Happy than Rich? Toronto: Penguin, 2000.

Foot, David K., and D. Stoffman. Boom, Bust, Echo.

Toronto: Stoddart, 2001. (David Foot’s website). Lancaster, Lynne C., and David Stillman. When

Generations Collide. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Zemke, Ron, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak.

Generations at Work. New York: Amacon, 2000.