BYDorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA
When a 19-year-old coworker asked me if I liked the new song, "If I Were Free," by Magnetic Zero, I gave her a blank stare. I consider myself to be "with it," so never having heard of the band made me feel out of it! It would appear that although my policy is to grow old in years only, there was a divide between my coworker and me. The realization that it was a generational divide hit me like acute oral infection.
I asked myself questions. What is the generational gap? Why is there a divide? What is challenging about it? What is good about it? How can we tap into the inherent diversity within the office to promote creative problem solving?
Other articles by Garlough
In researching data about the generation gap, I read that people need to first understand the strengths and differences of each generational group. People working in the dental office today range in age from 19 to 70-plus. This can create conflict, which results in an unhealthy work environment. Unless we understand the effect of the different eras on each age group, we will not be able to creatively bridge this gap.
Last month, Crafting Connections dissected the characteristics of the oldest group of workers in dental offices today, the traditionalists, born from 1925 to 1946. This month, I will scrutinize my own age group, the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964. By objectively uncovering some of my generation's foibles and understanding the reasons why we are the way we are, new ideas will arise to bridge the gap and promote teams.
The baby boomers have been history's most documented generation, making headlines with the Civil Rights movement, the "love-ins" of the 1960s, Woodstock, rock-n-roll, and the Vietnam War and Kent State protests. When the first boomers reached age 40, we made the front cover of Time magazine. Media outlets like to poke fun at our generation. Headlines such as "Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65" mock my famously self-reflective demographic. As we reach retirement age, the media frenzy continues with articles on how youth-minded boomers are redefining old age.
Why have we garnered such attention? The answer is simple. Never before in first world countries were so many children born during an era - close to 80 million babies.1 The return of men from World War II saw families grow amid a period of extreme optimism, progress, and opportunities. The introduction of television exposed people to educational and social issues. We witnessed the assassinations of great leaders - John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We had family planning for the first time and began having smaller families, with more women entering the workforce. All of this helped shape our core values as we challenged the social norms of the generations before us. Today, although the first baby boomers are retiring, we and Generation X (born from 1965 to 1980) make up the majority of today's workforce.
In the dental office, we often work with others of our own generation who also believe in self-improvement, both personally and professionally. This attitude is displayed through our advocating of teams and team building. Teams are our raison d'être. We believe wholeheartedly in teams and love consensus, participatory management, and collaboration. We're good at it, but this can lead to reluctance to go against our peers who don't see things our way. We promote meetings and often hold meetings. The younger generations believe we have a case of verbal diarrhea - lots of juice, but no substance. Certainly, there are times that I agree with my younger coworkers.
Baby boomers want to prove ourselves and we're skilled at delivering services such as dentistry. We love to work, and like the traditionalists before us, we believe that with hard work everyone can get ahead. The term workaholic3 was coined because of our propensity to work long hours and do whatever it takes to further ourselves and our organizations.
Clinically, we are the Cavitron celebrants. We are equally comfortable with hand scaling and the Cavitron in debridement and antimicrobial flushing. Most of us have adopted the use of the laser by default with an attitude of "seeing is believing." Yet boomers are open to incorporating the laser and any new technology into our practices. We weren't raised with computers, so technology isn't like a second skin to us. Yet we recognize the incredible benefits technology offers, and we have adapted. Admirably, some of my peers have even become tech geeks!
Boomers have watched as billing of patient services and computerized recording of the periodontal screening have come into the operatory. We now use the intraoral camera regularly to educate patients and help with case presentation, and we recognize its benefits. There is a saying in the art community - "The heart can't desire what the eye doesn't see." In the clinical setting, this can be translated into "The head will desire when the need is seen."
The breakdown in our offices comes from not understanding the differences between each generation. Traditionalists say baby boomers are self-absorbed and talk too much about their personal lives. They think we're too liberal and question authority unjustifiably. There is a perception by the traditionalists that boomers are needy, that we want feedback, but we may become insulted by too much feedback.
Gen Xers, on the other hand, say we're self-righteous workaholics who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. They believe baby boomers are incongruent, and this leads to a lack of respect and communication. They feel that we're too process-oriented and conflict-avoidant, and some of us lack backbone and care too much about consensus. Ironically, the youngest generation in the workplace, the millennials, think we're cool. They may feel boomers work too much, but they also feel that we're up-to-date on music (well, obviously not all of us).
With viewpoints such as these, it's easy to see how clashes can arise in the dental environment. Left unchecked, this discord can result in a lack of communication, the breakdown of team, and a toxic environment. This collapse of team affects everyone, and the infection can become a full-blown crisis, costly in time, energy, and money.
Creating a culture of celebrating the generational differences and tapping into the strengths of each group is by far more proactive and progressive. Creative problem solving is clearly the answer, and with such a diverse group of individuals, there should be no shortage of ideas. Extracting new inspirations will bridge the divide through constructive team building. The result can be an elevated team that leads to harmony and success for the entire dental office. 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. U.S. Office of Personnel Management
2. Time Magazine
Values of the baby boomers
• Individual choice - recognizing that autonomy is important to self-fulfillment
• Community involvement - wanting to contribute to the team and community
• Prosperity - having an "abundance mentality," i.e., there is enough for everyone
• Ownership - taking responsibility for circumstances
• Self-actualizing - wanting rewarding work to reach individual potential
• Health and wellness - recognizing that vitality is maintained through exercise and a healthy lifestyle