by Roxanne Hawn

I’ve written about veterinary medicine for both trade and pet outlets since 1995. I originally researched and wrote this feature article for a national veterinary magazine in 2005. It’s a long story why it never ran, but I still find the implications interesting. Since I haven’t had recent contact with the doctor examples, I used Dr. A, B, C, etc. to protect their privacy. The other experts, however, are quoted here as they first were. The content has been trimmed back some, and the title has been blog-a-fied.

Say “generation gap” and different tastes in music or fashion probably pop to mind. True generational differences, however, stem from key experiences during our formative years, birth to the end of full-time studenthood. These core values manifest in how we work, live and play.

Like no other time in American history, there are five living generations potentially working side by side due to flattened reporting structures and leaner staffing. Yet, in veterinary practice, the generational landscape is somewhat simpler, with two generations making up most of the current work force – Baby Boomers and Generation Xers.

“These two generations are as dramatically different as two adjacent generations have ever been,” says Chuck Underwood, president of The Generational Imperative.

Far from hopeless, getting along starts with information. “A very special thing happens when you realize it’s a generational difference,” says Underwood. “It’s no longer personal, so finger pointing between boss and subordinate instantly halts, and you realize it’s not you against me. It’s your generational values against my generational values. That’s something we can discuss civilly and resolve effectively.”

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

Baby Boomers’ parents survived the Great Depression and two world wars. A massive and competitive group, Boomers spent their formative years in the relative peace and unprecedented prosperity that followed. “Boomer kids came along in what might have been the most ideal time in American history,” Underwood says. “They know the enormous sacrifice made by their elders that created so many opportunities for them, so Boomers came of age driven to make the greatest contribution they can make to show their appreciation.”

Boomers, born leaders and believers in “we,” launched six social revolutions, including feminism, war protests, civil rights, ecology as well as the sexual and drug revolutions.

In addition, Boomers threw themselves into their work. “They willingly worked long hours, evenings and weekends,” Underwood explains. “In corporate America, they willingly accepted job transfers and promotions that caused them to uproot their families, whatever it took to advance in their careers, to make the contribution, to live up to the expectations of the generation.”

Generation X (born 1965-1981)

Generation X, on the other hand, saw things fall apart in government, in business and at home. In 1971, the vice president resigned in scandal. In 1974, the president resigned in scandal. In 1975, the U.S. quit the war in Vietnam. In 1979, when the oldest Gen-Xers were 14, they saw American hostages held in Iran. In 1980, they saw a failed rescue attempt. After ticking off this list, Underwood adds, “All of that molded a strong distrust in American government.”

At the same time, he says, Gen-X children saw their Baby Boomer parents laid off, despite years of dedicated and loyal service to one company, while corporate executives got multimillion dollar bonuses. “Events like that molded a distrust of employers, a distrust of big business,” Underwood explains.

Gen-X’s parents also divorced in larger numbers than ever before. “Gen-Xers have been a generation all about survival of their childhood,” Underwood explains. “They are the divorce generation, the latchkey generation, who watched their workaholic parents suffer from illness, fatigue, substance abuse and divorce because of their career drive.”

That’s why they value free time so much.

A pragmatic, rather the ideological, generation, “Gen-Xers tend to take life as it comes,” adds Underwood. “They try to make the best decisions hour by hour, day by day, month by month.”

Because Gen-Xers spent so much time alone as children, they are independent and self-reliant. Across the country, Underwood hears Gen-Xers say the same thing: Tell me where point A is, where we are now. Tell me where point Z is, where you want to be. Give me the tools and technology I need to get the job done, then back off, and I’ll get it done. Underwood explains, “They are very good at finding and executing solutions.”

According to Beverly Kaye, PhD, author of Love ’Em or Lose ’Em: Getting Good People to Stay, people from different generations express workplace frustration in different ways: “If Boomers don’t get the things they want,” she says, “they’ll whine around the water cooler. If Xers don’t get them, they’ll walk!”

Gender and Generations

In 1986, women outnumbered men in veterinary school for the first time. Today, while 53.5 percent of practicing veterinarians are men, 77.7 percent of veterinary students are women (and holding steady).

As this shift began, it was easy to blame workplace differences on gender. “The women” wanted to work less, have more flexible hours, and so on. However, men of Generation X want the same things. So, many differences once blamed on gender are really generational core values that also cross religious and ethnic boundaries.

Examples

Put these two sets of core values side by side, and it’s no wonder people get a little frustrated. Here are a few examples of how Boomers and Gen-Xers work together.

Dr. (A), a classic Baby Boomer in Michigan, explains the difference – “We live to work. They work to live.”

He points to requests for more flexible scheduling, more time off and staunch protection of personal time as hallmarks of this generational divide. “Their family needs and needs outside the practice are more of a priority,” he says.

Issues around sick time and tardiness also crop up. “We dealt with that just today,” Dr. (A) explains. “Someone was an hour late because of a concert last night.”

“In my generation, you never called in sick or were late,” he adds. “You had to be practically dying, if you didn’t come to work. It’s not that way anymore.”

Whereas such tardiness would have once been subject for reprimand and possible dismissal, Dr. (A) says, “We end up giving them more strikes than we used to. For us, getting fired would have been a big deal, devastating, but for them, it’s not that big a deal.”

Dr. (B), a Gen-X associate in Indiana, tried the workaholic Boomer model but completely burned out in two years.

Flexible scheduling helped her regain balance. “My generation has what people call a ‘work ethic,’” says Dr. (B), who enjoys cycling, open water swimming and traveling, “but we also realize our limitations and that there are other things in life. I just feel like I’m pretty efficient with my time.”

Some of that efficiency comes from the increased role of veterinary technicians in daily practice.

Dr. (C), in Georgia, worries about pigeonholing people by generation, but when pressed, she points one example of the disconnect. She, along with her Gen-X associates at one practice, wanted more flexibility and discretion in feline declaws. Their ideas, however, did not fit the hospital’s rules that dictated drop-off times, a two-day stay and specific post-op pain control.

While Dr. (C) and her peers focused on the concept behind the rule, making the cat comfortable, her Baby Boomer boss seemed to focus only on the rule and perceived any deviation as a challenge to his leadership. “I really wasn’t doing it to undermine authority,” she explains. “That’s not what I considered to be important.”

Dr. (D), another Gen-Xer, purchased a practice in Florida, but he admits that his generation is “not willing to work like a mule” to get the financial and lifestyle benefits they want. Yet, he reflected on what he has learned from his older bosses.

“We don’t just tend to hit everything with a steroid injection,” Dr. (D) says of younger veterinarians.

“Sometimes,” he admits, “I did every single test, and the client spent so much money, and I ended up giving a steroid injection. My bosses were like, ‘I told you so.’”

Sometimes Dr. (D) tried it the “old way” just to see the results since he says, “Books are not always right.”

He credits an open attitude for a lack of conflict. “They paved the way for what we have now,” he explains. “You have to respect that. I came out with that attitude. Some of my peers came out with the attitude ‘This is wrong. I’m not going to do it!’”


Commonalities

Even when frustrations crop up – be they about tattoos or treatment plans, vacation time or vaccination protocols – it helps to see the things all veterinary professionals have in common. Everyone wants respect. Everyone has integrity. Everyone wants to be trusted to do a good job.