As director of program development at The Environmental Careers Organization, Kevin Doyle knows a thing or two about job searching. In this recurring column for Grist, he explores the green job market and offers advice to eco-job-seekers looking to jumpstart their careers.

Environmental employers are losing their ‘boomers, and some are worried sick about it. They know that an inevitable competition for limited talent will follow the equally inevitable wave of retirements that will crest and break as the baby boomers age. Numerous studies put the percentage of environmental professionals and managers who will soon be eligible for retirement at close to 50 percent — and even higher in some fields. Federal, state, and local government agencies will be particularly hard-hit.

The simultaneous loss of thousands of experienced environmental professionals is, of course, a big problem. But here’s a very different concern:

What if the expected retirees don’t retire? What if the aging environmental workforce keeps aging-in-place, while a smaller-than-expected group of young professionals is brought into the workforce and a larger-than-needed cadre of new talent is left waiting in the wings? What if I run out of phrases-with-hyphens?

Well, we don’t need to ask “what if?” — it’s clear that a whole lot of aging environmental professionals aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And don’t call them aging either, thank you very much. Haven’t you heard that 50 is the new 40? ‘Boomers are young and vibrant! They’re “with it”! They’re learning exciting new 21st-century concepts, like “saving money” for “retirement without pensions.”

So used-to-be-young ‘boomers, still-feel-like-they’re-pretty-young “Xers,” and actually-are-young “millenials” are going to bump into each other in the hallways for many years to come. Perhaps it’s time that we get to know each other a little better.

A serious guide to the generational divide is Laura Bernstein, president and CEO of VisionPoint, an innovative national training firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. Bernstein co-authored Generations: Harnessing the Potential of the Multigenerational Workforce [PDF], an influential white paper that maps the generational terrain. Her firm helps employers find competitive advantage through the skillful management of diversity.

Bernstein notes that before we can work together more productively, it’s useful to describe the mental models that partially define us in the eyes of others. Naming the generations and exploring some of their characteristics and differences can “highlight how employees of different generations can stereotype and misunderstand one another’s actions and intentions.”

In the spirit of greater understanding at your environmental workplace, take a look at the two tables below. See anyone you know?

Generations at a Glance
Generation Date of birth Characteristics Stereotyped as
Traditionalists 1925-1942 Hardworking and dedicated, respectful of rules and authority, conservative and traditional Old-fashioned, behind the times, rigid/autocratic, change/risk averse
Baby Boomers 1943-1960 Youthful self-identity, optimistic, team player, competitive Self-centered, unrealistic, political, power-driven, workaholic
Generation X 1961-1981 Balanced (work/life quality), self-reliant, pragmatic Slackers, selfish, impatient, cynical
Generation Y 1982-2002 Fast-paced/multitasking, fun-seeking, technology-savvy Short attention span, spoiled and disrespectful, technology-dependent
Generational Differences in Key Workplace Dimensions
Traditionalists Baby Boomers Generation X Generation Y
Work Style By the book — “how” is as important as what gets done Get it done, whatever it takes — nights and weekends Find the fastest route to results; Protocol secondary Work to deadlines, not necessarily to schedules
Authority/ Leadership Command/ control; Rarely question authority Respect for power and accomplishment Rules are flexible; Collaboration is important Value autonomy; Less inclined to pursue formal leadership positions
Communication Formal and through proper channels Somewhat formal, through structured network Casual and direct; sometimes skeptical Casual and direct; eager to please
Recognition/ Reward Personal acknowledgement and compensation for work well done Public acknowledgement and career advancement A balance of fair compensation and ample time off as reward Individual and public praise (exposure); opportunity for broadening skills
Work/Family Work and family should be kept separate Work comes first Value work/life balance Value blending personal life into work
Loyalty To the organization To the importance and meaning of work To individual career goals To the people involved with the project
Technology “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” Necessary for progress Practical tools for getting things done What else is there?

At one level, these generational capsule descriptions are a fun parlor game. They give older professionals a chance to complain about “kids these days” and younger ones the opportunity to roll their eyes at the technological illiteracy of the people who are allowed to sit above them on the organizational chart. And perhaps we can all agree that any generation that produced Kevin Federline has a lot of explaining to do.

Bernstein reminds us, however, that the reality for managers and workers is no game and that the stakes are high. For the first time in memory, four generations of employees are attempting to work together at the same time.

Serious conflicts can arise out of generational boundaries over work style, authority, communication, and technology. Differences over workplace loyalty may emerge as particularly difficult to navigate because the generational gaps are so large. Moreover, the issues raised by the new generation gaps come at the same time that we are struggling to integrate our gender, race, ethnicity, and class differences.

Bernstein writes that the question before us is no longer, “Will we have a diverse, multigenerational workplace?” We do. The question now is, “Are we prepared?” It’s not at all clear to me that the leaders of our environmental, conservation, and sustainable economy workplaces are prepared for the challenge — or even sufficiently aware of it.

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Kevin Doyle is the national director of program development for the The Environmental Careers Organization in Boston. He is coauthor of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World and The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century.