Bridging the Generational Gap at Our Clubs

by Brian Dobak
March 21, 2011

In the golf business, like any other business, there comes a point when it’s “out with the old and in with the new”. But let’s rewind (try and imagine the sound of a scratchy tape being rewound) to a point before this conclusion – when the old and the new are working together.

In the golf business, many clubs have several different generations within its work force. It is very common for many clubs to have retired folks as its starter/rangers, high school and/or college folks as outside service employees, senior management like the HP or Director of Golf in their late 30's and into their 40's, and General Managers in their late 40's and into their 50’s, and the assistant professional staff are in their post-graduate mid-to-late 20’s. This is an interesting dynamic that we all need to pay more attention to.

I have heard that this is the first time in American history that we have had four different generations working side-by-side in the workplace. If you are old enough, remember when older workers were the bosses and younger workers did what was asked of them, no questions asked. There were definite rules as to how the boss was treated and how younger workers treated older workers. In the club business, roles today are all over the place and the rules are being rewritten daily.

Research indicates that people communicate based on their generational backgrounds. Each generation has distinct attitudes, behaviors, expectations, habits and motivational buttons. Learning how to communicate with the different generations can eliminate many major confrontations and misunderstandings at your club.

Unlocking the Mystery at Your Club

To begin to understand how individuals in different generations act and react, one must first start with understanding oneself. Begin by seeing where you fall on the “Generation Time line” above. The next thing to consider is the individual and his or her underlying values, or personal and lifestyle characteristics, which seem to correspond with each generation, as shown in the following table.

The characteristics listed in the table are but a very few of those that have been studied and reported by various authors. Not every person in a generation will share all of the various characteristics shown in this or the next table with others in the same generation. However, these examples are indicative of general patterns in the relationships between and among family members, friends and people in the workplace. Individuals born at one end of the date range or the other may see overlapping characteristics with the preceding or succeeding generation. Understanding these characteristics about individuals makes it easier to look at workplace characteristics and how they manifest themselves in business, specifically to us, our club operations.

What Generations Reveal

Developing a relevant understanding of generations can uncover what makes members of each generation tick. Though people act and react differently to various situations, it is generally accepted that those with similar backgrounds (gender, race, education, income, etc.) tend to share similar viewpoints, outlooks, communication styles, work habits, and expectations. They also tend to understand and experience a greater comfort level with each other. The same is true of members from similar generations. Research has clearly shown that generational membership is also a key variable in determining employee, consumer, and overall human behavior.

While issues between generations can be positive, it is the negative experiences that cause people to expend time, energy, and emotional resources. Workplace issues between members of different generations are often not pleasant or productive. Such experiences are taking place more often, resulting in decreased productivity and employee satisfaction.

Extensive research on generational issues within a wide variety of organizations has revealed that varying levels of employee disenchantment, miscommunication, and ill will, as a result of generational differences, are present. These realizations, which are listed below, were uncovered following detailed observations and discussions of generational issues with management, workers, and customers.

  • Generational differences are real. The ideals, values, traits, goals, and characteristics held by generations are increasingly different from one another. While representative of a newer trend, these differences are substantial and play a significant role in how members of each group relate to one another. A few specific differences between generations include communication styles and expectations, work styles, attitudes about work and life, comfort with technology, views regarding loyalty and authority, and acceptance of change. 
  • Generational differences cause misunderstanding. It is widely recognized and accepted in organizations that people of different generations often aren’t on the same page. As with other dissimilarities between people, lack of commonly held beliefs and experiences can, and often do, cause misunderstandings among employees of different generations.
  • Generational differences cause strife. Due to the misunderstandings that occur, tensions between people of different generations are not uncommon. Though workplace tensions are not limited to workers of differing age groups, strife from inter-generational dealings is often difficult for co-workers to settle.
  • Generational issues impact the workplace. Misunderstandings and strife within a club can negatively impact employee interaction and productivity. Consequently, the entire operation suffers, as valuable time, energy, and emotions are wasted dealing with crises rather than managing the business of serving the members. Differing work and life expectations can also create tensions. While some disapprove of those who end their workday promptly at 5:00 p.m., those departing conversely resent the "glares" they receive as they walk out the door, thinking that those who stay late should get a life. Furthermore, both of these groups spend their days growing weary of those who are distracted from work finding care for their parents and fielding calls from their teenage children.
  • Generational differences can be minimized. Having a solid understanding of other generations is critical and should not be assumed to exist. Though the differences between generations have increased, steps can still be taken to minimize the negative outcomes that result from such differences.
Getting Back to Work

-At XYZ Golf Club, the Head Professional is 62 and he is having a difficult time relating to and keeping up with the innovative young apprentice professionals under him that are trying to spread their wings. In turn, the young apprentices are having difficulty responding to the Head Professionals work style and old-school procedural preferences. The assistants offer more modern suggestions for improvement, however the HP just wishes the assistants would do what they’re told, like they did back in the 1970’s.

-The outside services staff at XYZ Country Club is comprised of high school students that just needed a job because they’re parents were no longer paying for their clothes and providing them with their weekend recreational money. There are also a few local college students in the mix who looking for some extra cash for books and beer money. The staff is consistently late and sometimes they don’t show up for work at all with out a phone call into the golf shop. The assistants who oversee them have a difficult time trying to show them the importance of being on time.

-The starter/ranger staff at ABC Golf Club are in their late 60’s to late 70’s. There are even a few in their early 80’s. Some of them want the job for their benefits they receive as well as to bring in a little extra cash to compliment their social security checks. Some of them want the job because they want the playing privileges. They are comprised of former military officials, mechanical engineers, a former Army Ranger, and a handful of former executives of major corporations. Since the economy went downhill, staffing models have changed and various policies and procedures have been adjusted and modified, thus affecting them. On top of that, the starters/rangers are overseen by a young assistant golf professional.  The starters have had a really hard time being managed by an assistant professional who has barely “left his mothers womb”.

-The outside services staff at The XYZ Club has a diverse mix of age groups within. A few high school students, a few college students, a PGM intern, a few in their 30's, and a few in their 50's. Work styles clash and often result in animosity within the staff, thus killing service levels.

How would you manage these situations?

There are more pronounced differences between the generations today than ever before. What can one expect with the dramatic changes in our world in the last 60 years? Being aware of these differences can help individuals tailor their message for maximum effect, regardless of the task, or the relationship — family, friends, workplace peers. Good business is based on understanding others. The majority of us think the correct way, and the only way, is our way. In business, as well as in personal life, that is just not true. To work effectively and efficiently, to increase productivity and quality, one needs to understand generational characteristics and learn how to use them effectively in dealing with each individual.

A colleague once told me that if you “young folk” don’t learn how to work and communicate with the “old folk”, our operation will suffer. However, I couldn’t help but think that it could be the other way around. In many ways, it’s about getting the "old folk" to work and communicate with the "young folk". Time isn't moving backwards. The business, the profession, and the professionals are changing, growing, and moving forward with the times. Yes, young pros like me need to know how to communicate with the older folks, but I think the older folks need to adapt with the times as well.

Here are a 6 things to keep in mind when juggling the different generations at your club:

  1. Just because “we’ve always done it this way” doesn’t make it right. Don’t resist change. If there’s a better way, don’t be stubborn – adopt it. 
  2. Just because it’s new doesn’t make it better. Focus on getting the right result. Then find the most efficient way there, whether that’s old or new.
  3. Speed is good but only if you already have direction. See the big picture before you dive into the details. Then you’re ready to move fast!
  4. Don’t view each other as competition. Appreciate the differences – your respective strengths and weaknesses. Focus on how you complement each other because there are lessons to be learned on both sides.
  5. Age doesn’t matter when learning new ways, even if they’re old ways. Some wisdom is timeless. There may be leading-edge ways to use that timeless wisdom. But remember this, they’re both valuable!
  6. At the end of the day, there are going to be employees that just don't budge and it can be detrimental to the operation. This is when you simply and politely ask them, "Do you want this job or not?"
“There was no respect for youth when I was young, and now that I am old, there is no respect for age – I missed it coming and going.” - J.B. Priestly

References for this article include:

Karp, Hank; Fuller, Connie; Sirias, Danilo. Bridging the Boomer Xer Gap: Creating Authentic Teams for High Performance at Work. Palo Alto, Calif.: Davies-Black Publishing, 2002.

Kersten, Denise. “Today’s Generations Face New Communications Gap,” USA Today, November 15, 2002.

Lancaster, Lynne C.; Stillman, David. When Generations Collide: Who They Are, Why They Clash, How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2002.

Sago, Brad. “Uncommon Threads: Mending the Generation Gap at Work,” Executive Update, July 2000.

Walston, Sandra Ford. Distinguishing Communication Approaches Across Generations, 1999 (online publication),

Zemke, Ron; Raines, Claire; Filipczak, Bob. Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York, N.Y.: American Management Association, 2000.