"Why do you pander to them?"
This question kept being put to Marian Salzman, the boss of Havas Public Relations, by her older workers in the days after the firm launched its latest recruitment advertisement. Featuring eager young things using snazzy mobile devices, the ad highlights the company's lack of hierarchy and how recruits can choose their own work and talk back to their bosses as they begin their "personal development journey."
Although huge numbers of today's young people are starting their working lives in one of the least welcoming labour markets in modern history, those with the right skills have never had it so good. Employers have become convinced they are at the start of a period of famine and the best talent has to be won at almost any cost. In some rich countries, furthermore, older workers are retiring later, so bosses have a wider range of ages to manage.
As firms seek to be more meritocratic with promotions, however, older staff can be dismayed to find their years of service no longer guarantee advancement and, as digital skills become more important, younger workers are whizzing past them.
Companies rolling out the red carpet for Generation Y, those born since the early 1980s, is fuelling the same sort of intergenerational grudges, Salzman says.
"Baby boomers really resent these kids," she says. "(Generation X, born in the mid-1960s to early 1980s, is fed up with being) stuck in the middle between older workers who refuse to retire and younger ones who are treated far better than they ever were."
Generation gaps are as old as history. Nevertheless, businesses seem to be more worried than before about managing three age groups with such differing attitudes.
A recent survey by Ernst & Young, which asked professionals from each age group their opinions of each generation, found significant differences, not all of them predictable. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and the mid-1960s, are not slacking off as they age. They are seen as hardworking and productive. The middle ranks of Generation Xers, who might be expected to be battling their way up the corporate ladder, are viewed as the best team players.
Opinions on the youth of Generation Y, also known as "millennials," are less surprising: good at tech stuff but truculent and a bit work-shy.
Ernst & Young did not conduct its survey solely for clients. The consultancy felt it needed to understand generational challenges in its own workforce, says Karyn Twaronite, a partner who oversaw the work.
In America, the Ernst & Young staff is young, 62 per cent from Generation Y, 29 per cent from Generation X and only nine per cent baby boomers. To get them to work together, rather than glowering at each other across their cubicle dividers, the firm is encouraging them to do voluntary work in cross-generational teams. Millennials may be cool with this, their older peers not so much.
Despite the millennials' mixed reviews, many of their number have enjoyed swift promotion into managerial positions. Being "digital natives" has helped them overtake older candidates in jobs in which understanding of such things as social media helps. Employers also may be promoting them because of three characteristics that often show up in surveys of millennials' attitudes: their demands to be treated meritocratically, their appetite for responsibility and their unwillingness to hang around if they do not get what they want.
The growing trend of workers reporting to younger managers, however, raises the question of how to keep the older ones motivated. Working under a youthful supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded they have failed to keep pace, argue Florian Kunze of the University of St. Gallen and Jochen Menges of Cambridge University in a paper presented at the recent annual meeting of America's Academy of Management. The more talk there is in a workplace about comparisons between the generations, the academics suggest, the more destructive the negativity of those passed over.
The labels for the three age groups largely reflect demography, but firms also are fretting about generational issues in fast-growing, emerging economies with young populations, such as India. After its rapid expansion in recent years, Tata Consulting Services now has a 240,000-strong workforce of which more than 70 per cent are younger than 30. This has put enormous pressure on the firm to change, says Ajoy Mukherjee, its head of human resources. Feedback on performance is given more quickly, and junior employees are given more responsibility sooner.
TCS also has launched Knome, an internal social network inspired by Facebook and Twitter, because younger workers wanted it. This has facilitated collaboration on everything from designing valuable new software to, yes, volunteering in the community.
"There is no point in baby boomers and Generation X saying that Gen Y should behave like us," Mukherjee says. "We have to behave like them."
One reason for optimism is that some of the things that supposedly make Generation Y different have been exaggerated, says Rich Floersch, head of human resources at McDonald's. In fact, he says, they are "irked by the myths of having a sense of entitlement, having poor communication skills and being job-hoppers."
If they find a company that offers challenging work, a sense of purpose and development, he says, they will stay.
When a millennial is using her smartphone in a meeting, she may be multitasking rather than disengaged or rude, argues Dan Schwabel, who has written a book about Generation Y at work. She may be resented by her older colleagues, but typically she respects them and wants to learn from them.
That explains millennials' constant pleas for feedback, Schwabel says. Baby boomers and Generation Xers may find mentoring millennials rewarding, if they give it a try.
Google is often portrayed as the embodiment of millennial-friendly work practices. However, Laszlo Bock, a human-resources chief at the Internet firm, points out it has workers as old as 83. He argues the only thing different about Generation Y is it is actually asking for the things everybody else wants.
Maybe. Still, how many firms will be as willing and able as Google to pamper its staff to keep all the generations getting along more or less happily?