Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1977, by contrast are considered skeptical, raised as they were in a time of recession and downsizing. In response, Gen Xers are resourceful and independent, intent on burnishing their own skills as a way to achieve job security; they're also typically more ­concerned with work-life balance than Boomers. "They want to be constantly learning - that is their job security," says Stillman. "If I know enough and am constantly getting new skills, then if anything bad happens, I'm going to be all the more employable."

Finally, there's the tech-savvy progeny of the Boomers, known alternately as Generation Y (and sometimes why), Millennials, and Echo Boomers. These newest entrants to the workforce are used to customizing everything they touch - from their iPods to their sneakers, and now perhaps their careers - and having been fed a steady diet of positive ­affirmation by their parents, now expect the same from their supervisors and bosses.

With four generations thrust together in offices and factories around the country, conflict is inevitable. Some of the flare-ups are downright humorous, like the pique a Traditionalist or Boomer may feel at getting a thank-you note e-mailed to them or the confusion over the difference between fat and phat. Less funny are stories like one reported in a recent issue of Fast Company: Angry parents of a Generation Y car salesman showed up in the CEO's office, demanding to know why their son didn't receive a bonus. They left only when security booted them out.

Perhaps more common, though, are simmering resentments that often go unsaid, but have a definite impact on workplace harmony. At Sutter Gould Medical Foundation in Northern California, some Baby Boomer doctors are quietly exasperated with what they see as their younger colleagues' lack of commitment to the organization. "We have doctors who are in their early 50s who, when they came to Gould early in their career, paid their dues," says Stephanie Miller, executive director of human resources, who is in the process of launching some programs to address the generational divide. "They took calls every night and every weekend, and these new guys want more work-life balance, and they want to spend more time with their family."

Bottom-Line Impact
If these generational fissures were just a matter of grumbling and mild discontent, they could easily be dismissed as a nonissue. But more and more companies are realizing that managing and rewarding different generations in ways that meet their respective hopes and expectations has a real bottom-line impact. One area where it's particularly important is in the recruitment and retention of the most talented, productive people. "It's expensive, time-consuming,­ and difficult to find talent," says Susan Johnson, vice president of strategic talent management for Pitney Bowes, a Connecticut-based document and communication management company. Or, as Paul Silverglate, an audit partner at the consulting company Deloitte & Touche, puts it: "It's a seller's market for talent in our industry right now. There's so much work and fewer people coming into the job market that we have to figure out a way to get the most talented people."

Also important to the continuing, long-term viability of companies is planning for the day when Baby Boomers - who hit age 60 en masse this year - begin to retire or move to a reduced work schedule. "From a company standpoint, they are looking to build bench strength. They want the next generation of people ready for when the Boomers do leave or change their status or go part-time," says Rex Davenport, editor in chief of Training + Development magazine. "A lot of companies are looking at developing the next generation of leaders."

Of course, grooming a new group of leaders means ensuring that those same people don't bolt; and to keep Generations X and Y around often requires becoming an active partner in their career planning. That fact was driven home for Susan Johnson at Pitney Bowes last summer when the company put on a discussion with two panels, one consisting of executives near retirement and the other of younger, promising employees. The more senior executives, Johnson recalls, talked about the corporate hierarchy and how they had to rise methodically in the company, going step by accepted­ step. "Contrast that with the voices of the future panel," she recalls. "They said, 'If Pitney Bowes doesn't give me what I want, I'm ready, willing, and able to go someplace else, because it's all about me managing my career.' "

To meet that expectation, Pitney Bowes has a formal initiative that focuses a lot of attention on what Johnson calls "emerging strategic leaders." It boils down to her staff and senior executives spending time and effort cultivating promising employees. "We see what development planning and mentoring and assessment we can put in place for them to help them realize their potential and show them we care about them enough to help them manage their careers within PB," she says.