Leveraging Generational Diversity in Law

The following article by Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of LAWPRO Magazine. The original article also features sidebar interviews with law firms that are making great efforts to address the issue of changing demographics in the workplace.

They, them, those … each generation assessing the others. Generational diversity is quickly becoming one of the top stressors in organizations. With five distinct generational characteristics mixed with other elements of diversity including gender, culture, ethnicity, language, experience etc., the complexity of our workforce has never been greater.

Historically, there were three distinct generational groups in an organization. Generally, you started with your own generational cohort and as you got older, you progressed predictably up the hierarchy, tending to remain with your own group throughout your career. Top levels rarely, if ever, had contact with lower levels and therefore younger generations. Today, with team-based projects, and elimination of hierarchical layers in organizations, there is a greater likelihood that you will come in daily contact with generations other than your own.

In the past, distinct generational characteristics would take 22 to 25 years to appear in the workforce. Today, it is every 10 years and the timeframe between generations continues to shrink. Many people in today’s workforce will experience six, or even seven, distinct generations in the workforce during their career.

Generations in today’s workforce

Traditionalists are approximately in their mid-sixties today, the oldest generation in the workplace. Following them are Boomers, in their mid to late fifties now turning sixty at a rate of one every seven seconds in North America, who are thinking about retirement or career redefinement.

Squeezed between Boomers and the next generation is the forgotten generation: the Trailing Boomers. Often grouped with the Boomers, they have characteristics distinct from Boomers. They are often described as the most over-worked, over-whelmed, over-tired and over-looked generation in the workplace. For them, retirement is not on the horizon, their children are approaching college/university, they have eldercare demands and are taking on more responsibility as Boomers shift into pre-retirement.

The Nexus generation or Gen ‘X’ is now in their early to mid-thirties starting families advancing their careers and moving into positions of authority.

The Net generation of Gen ‘Y’ is approaching thirty, exploring their options, settling into committed relationships in their personal lives, and assessing their choices in their professional lives.

Gen I, at the top end is just starting university, has been in the part-time service sector for a while as students. ‘I’ stands for I am unique, internet everything, instant gratification, iPods,iPhones… They will be in your offices as students, interns and associates very soon.

Generational characteristics

Generational characteristics are formed by demographics; social, economic, political circumstances; pivotal collective moments shared by many; technology and pop culture; and, stages and phases human development. The more rapid the pace of change – the shorter the generational cycles. The shorter the generational cycles – the more generations in the workplace at one time.

When considering generational diversity remember that there are more shades of grey than black and white. Some would argue that you can define a generation by when you were born. The reality is that where you were born, your family structure, how you were parented, your cultural norms, social values and roles of authority in your life will have as much impact, if not more, than your date of birth.


If you are from a generation that is disproportionately larger or significantly smaller than the rest of the population, you will have a lot of power and influence. For example, in response to the arrival of the Boomer generation, which is proportionately larger than the rest of the population, society invested heavily in: maternity wards as they arrived; elementary schools as they reached school age; colleges and universities as they approached adulthood; and new retirement models as Boomers approach 60 years of age.

The Nexus generation or Gen ‘X’ is significantly smaller than other generational cohorts. They have power because as there are so few of them they are in high demand, able to exercise their power due to their relative scarcity.

For each Boomer looking for work or interested in advancing his or her career, there were four or five others wanting and available to take their place. For every Nexus employee, there are multiple jobs and opportunities available. The Nexus generation can make demands and choices because they are in such demand.

Social, political, economic climate

As human beings, if we grow up in a period of abundance we expect abundance to return even during periods of scarcity. If we are raised during periods of scarcity, we expect scarcity to return even during times of abundance. So, if you were raised during the depression or by parents who experienced the depression, you will be more likely to save for a ‘rainy day.’ If you are raised during economic prosperity and growth, you will assume opportunities will be available and that your needs will be taken care of in the future.

Pivotal collective moments

If you remember where you were when you heard about the Kennedy assassination in 1963, you are likely a Traditionalist or Boomer; watched the first man step onto the moon in 1969, a Traditionalist, Boomer or Trailing Boomer; remember when Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994, you are likely a Nexus. These shared social moments help to shape a generation and impact generational behaviours. Your memories of bomb drills, fire drills or lock-down drills are part of defining your generation.

Technology and pop culture

Television, computer games, and internet social networking help to shape a generation. If you remember watching Dallas on Friday nights with your friends, you are likely a Boomer or Trailing Boomer. If you watch television via YouTube at a time that is convenient to you, while you talk to your friends on FaceBook or MSN, then you are likely a Net or Gen I.

If you are Nexus, Net or I you are likely comfortable meeting over the phone on conference calls or web meetings. If you are a Trailing Boomer or older, you likely prefer face-to-face meetings to establish and nurture relationships and conduct business.

Human development

In terms of human, brain and social development, one of the most important times for defining a generation characteristic is around the age of 10. At that age, you are developing the capacity for abstract thought, connecting information with experience and expanding your level of independence.

In grade five, you begin to make assumptions about work based on the key messages you receive from parents, teachers, media and society. If you were ten and heard consistently that if you work hard you will get ahead, you are likely a Trailing Boomer or older. If you heard that you will have multiple careers, multiple employers, you should keep your options open, it is about employability not employment that offers stability, then you are likely Nexus or younger.

These messages form a subconscious core that leads to behaviours and attitudes about work, employer/employee relationships, advancement and success.

Generational diversity in law

‘They’ have no life! ‘They’ have no commitment!

You may think “they have no life” when observing Boomers or older partners, but if you come from the “work hard you’ll get ahead” generation, you are more likely to be work-centric, where work comes first and everything else fits around it.

If you are younger, you may have heard and experienced that no matter how hard you work you could get laid off or have limited advancement through no fault of your own due to mergers/acquisitions; you may be more family-centric where family comes first or dual work/family-centric where work and family are equally important. From another generation’s perspective, it looks like Boomers have no life or Nexus and younger have no work ethic. In fact, each has a different way of defining success
and looking at work.

‘They’ show no respect! No,’ they’ show no respect!

In response to a recent e-mail sent to a group of individuals across generations, who were going to be attending a meeting, each recipient was asked to acknowledge receipt of the revised information and raise any questions about the upcoming event.

A Traditionalist responded with a formal letter complete with Dear Nora and concluding with Respectfully, Frank. A Trailing Boomer, rushed and over-worked, responded with short bulleted thoughts – got it thanks – no questions – will be there – safe travels – see you Thursday – Marie. A Net generation recipient replied simply with C U. Each generation may have thought the other disrespectful. Too long-winded, too formal, too rushed, too curt … when in fact, they were responding appropriately – demonstrating respect from their own generation’s perspective.

‘They’ make unapologetic demands! ‘They’ are unsure of themselves!

A Boomer partner asking a Nexus or Net associate to do something without first acknowledging they’re likely already busy by saying, “I’m sorry, I know you are busy, but I need this for a client right away,” may be seen as rude or uncaring. And when a Boomer or Traditionalist hears a Nexus or Net associate start by saying, “I’m sorry but I need to ask for clarification,” it may appear to a Boomer that the associate lacks confidence, expecting themto just make the demand, “I need the following information
to complete this task.”

Each perspective is understandable and legitimate from their own generation’s perspective. But there will be much less stress and misunderstandings as generations begin to become more aware of, and gain a greater understanding of, the others’ point of view, life experience, priorities, behaviours and attitudes.

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