Meet the traditionalists

Nov. 14, 2014
Chaos and conflict arise in our dental practices when we attempt to fit nontraditional workforces into traditional workplaces. With four generations1 working today, creativity is needed to bridge the differences that naturally occur between varied groups of people.

BY Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

Chaos and conflict arise in our dental practices when we attempt to fit nontraditional workforces into traditional workplaces. With four generations1 working today, creativity is needed to bridge the differences that naturally occur between varied groups of people.

Before we can find creative approaches to reconciling the generational gaps, we first need to understand each age group. Having knowledge and an appreciation of each generation's idiosyncrasies will broaden our perspectives. In my column for the next four issues of RDH, my intention is to educate my readers on each of the four generations and explore creative approaches to generational gaps. To begin this exercise, let's consider Jean's story:

Jean entered the dental field in the early 1960s, at a time when clinicians didn't wear masks, gloves, or safety glasses. She began her career as a dental assistant, and with the encouragement and support of her dentist, she took the American Dental Hygienists' Association national board exam in 1968. When Jean became a dental hygienist, most women were still working in the home, so she felt proud to be a professional woman.

Equipment in her operatory was simple; there was no Cavitron, laser, intraoral camera, or microscope. She didn't refer to the care that she provided as "periodontal therapy," but she took her profession seriously and delivered outstanding care to her patients, developing rich relationships with them and with the dental team.

By 1975, she was making a healthy income of $7,000, and she knew this would be the office from which she would retire. She didn't know, however, that she would still be practicing as a dental hygienist in the same office in 2014 - but with a young dentist who bought the practice from her original boss.

Jean's plan to retire at the age of 65 was thwarted by the long-term illness and death of her husband 10 years earlier. In addition, the economic downturn of 2008 and the need to retain affordable health care prohibited her from reaching economic independence by her intended retirement year.

Yet, she feels lucky. She loves her job, and she is a good team player who dislikes conflict and confrontation. She is healthy and uses an ergonomically designed operatory chair. Although her energy is waning, she isn't sure about how she would fill her time if she weren't caring for her patients.

Jean has remained current on new clinical technology, but truthfully, she is more comfortable with manual scaling and polishing than with laser therapy. Technology isn't her first language, so it is difficult for her.

Jean remembers her reaction upon first learning of fax technology while she was traveling with a group of friends to the Caribbean in 1988. One couple sent a fax back to their family in the United States to tell them that they had arrived safely, and it seemed unbelievable to Jean that a written message could be sent via a phone line to another continent. The research being done today to turn urine into electrical power seems as farfetched as the fax did to Jean at that time.4 However, there has been so much change in her lifetime that she now believes anything to be possible.

Although technology is challenging for Jean, her greatest challenge in the office right now is relating to the members of the other generations with whom she works. A generational divide is causing a rift in the practice. Communication and understanding are lacking among the staff. Although Jean recognizes diversity to be a critical element in producing new ideas or processes, the other staff members are not tapping into this important element of the creative process. In fact, with employees whose ages range from 19 to 70, there is real conflict.

Jean is not alone. There are 46 million people who were born between 1927 and 1945 who are still working today. These workers are referred to as "veterans" or "traditionalists," and they are continuing to work - either by design or by default.

The first step to understanding the differences between the generations is realizing that we are all a product of the times in which we've lived. The events and conditions that each of us experience during our formative years determine who we are and how we see the world. As a result of these events and conditions, each generation adopts a unique "generational personality."5 The members of each generation bring their own beliefs, values, cultures, perspectives, likes, dislikes, skills, and traits to the workplace.

The traditionalists, born just before 1945, are defined by the events of Pearl Harbor, World War II, D-Day, and the Korean War. It should not be surprising that traditionalists have battle cries: "Bear any burden; pay any price" and "Do it big." The traditionalists are characterized by patriotism, teamwork, and the idea of "doing more with less."

These workers grew up during lean times and consider work a privilege. Many of them moved from the farm to the suburbs, bringing a strong work ethic with them. Like Jean, they are willing to put in long, grueling hours to get ahead in their careers. They prefer brick-and-mortar educational institutions and traditional lectures to web-based education.3

People of this generation are usually innovative and fiscally conservative. They are responsible for developing today's space program; creating vaccines for many diseases, including polio, tuberculosis, tetanus, and whooping cough; and laying the foundation for today's technological environment.

Like other traditionalists in the workplace, Jean is loyal, dedicated, and willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team. She inherently places duty before pleasure, respects authority, and likes rules of conduct. Her communication style is indirect,2 which can result in misunderstandings. She prefers to work in a "command and control" office culture with leaders who provide clear direction.

Values of traditionalists

Respectful of authority - Traditionalists were raised by paternalistic parents.

Loyal - Traditionalists usually stay in the same workplace for all of their lives.

Dedicated - Traditionalists work hard and believe that anyone can get ahead with work.

Compliant - Traditionalists dislike conflict and confrontation.

Willing to make sacrifices - Traditionalists will do without in the short term in order to gain in the long term.

In the dental office, Jean has standardized her care of patients and believes that experience rules. The systems she has developed are efficient and effective. Her communication style with her patients is authoritative, and her repertoire of practical solutions for problems is extensive. Similarly to other traditionalists, she is empathetic to challenges in the lives of patients that may affect their oral health.

Other team members tend not to appreciate members of Jean's generation, however. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, believe traditionalists are rigid and resistant to change, technologically challenged, narrow-minded, and dictatorial.

Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1981, claim that traditionalists are set in their ways, need to learn how to use email, and are the ones with all the money. Traditionalists, on the other hand, say that Generation Xers don't respect experience, don't follow procedures, and don't know what hard work is.

In a refreshing twist, millennials believe traditionalists to be good leaders. They consider traditionalists to be trustworthy and brave. Born between 1982 and the present, millennials are the youngest generation in the workplace today, and they enjoy hearing the stories told by their older coworkers. Traditionalists say millennials have good manners; they say that millennials are smart, but they watch too much TV with crude language and violence.

Jean enjoys the 19-year-old dental assistant in the office, but she doesn't identify with her or her other coworkers - nor does she grasp their values. She feels isolated from the team and recognizes the conflict that occurs to be disruptive to the entire office.

Fortunately, Jean's boss recognizes that something must be done to bring the team together and plans to hire a consultant in 2015 to help with team building. In the meantime, Jean will digest RDH's articles on the generations over the next few months. Since knowledge is power, she intends to arm herself with data that will enable her to advance quickly through the creative process. With no foreseeable plan to retire and a strong loyalty to the practice, Jean has motivation to bridge the generation gap. She looks forward to direction and to a cohesive, brighter future RDH

Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .


1. Zemke R, Raines C, Filipczak B. Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, Xers, and nexters in your workplace. New York: AMACOM, 1999.
2. McNulty EJ. Can you manage different generations? Harvard Business School Working Knowledge Newsletter. Apr.17, 2006.
3. Kane S. Traditionalists (aka the silent generation). About Careers.
4. Pee power. The Economist. Aug. 2, 2014: 60.
5. Lancaster L, Stillman D. When generations collide. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.