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Knowing Your Workers: Baby Boomer/Millennial Worker Dynamics

Baby Boomer

Baby BoomerWe’ve talked about the three generations currently well represented by workers in our economy: the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. This time we’ll talk about the dynamic that exists between the oldest and the youngest of these three: the Boomers and their children, the Millennials.

The good news is that most Millennials will not have their grandparents, the G.I. Generation, as bosses. That generation respected authority and tradition, put duty before pleasure, expected delayed gratification on everything, frowned on individual expression, and felt grateful just to have jobs. The difference between them and Millennials, who expect their work to be rewarding and their bosses to be mentors, want to be able to work flexibly via technology anywhere and anytime and do not put their work responsibilities over the other things they value in life, would be too stark to work very smoothly.

Their children, the Boomers, rebelled against that generation and chose to value individuality, equality and collaboration, questioned authority and insisted on respect for young people and their ideas – are a much better match. There are still areas of friction that do exist, and they center around expectations of work, feedback, and rewards. It’s because of the way that they advocate for respect, interesting work, and mentoring that makes older generations accuse Millennials of being spoiled, lazy, and entitled. But is it surprising that Millennials should do this?

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First, it’s important to recognize that Boomers and Millennials were not raised the same at all, and that was deliberate. Baby Boomers thought their parents were too rigid, too conformist, and too self sacrificing, and so they chose to parent their children differently. Where Boomer children were expected to behave, be respectful and maintain distance between themselves and teachers or authorities, follow the rules, and accept group praise, they trained their children to do the opposite.

Millennials were encouraged to ask questions, to call adults by their first names, to express their individuality and develop strong self esteem. Millennials got participation trophies, and parents scheduled their days so their children could develop themselves via sports, the arts, or other activities. As children, Millennials grew up believing they were special, important, and adults would bend over backwards to try to understand and accommodate them. And then they graduated and entered the workforce where very few of their coworkers or bosses wanted or expected to have to mentor them further so they can reach their full potential.

Obviously this was a recipe for, if not disaster, some significant problems. Millennials are used to seeing work as fun. School and learning has been made more fun so that they would enjoy it. Millennials are used to having regular positive feedback – feedback that is designed not to hurt their self esteem. Millennials are used to other people modifying their schedules to make their lives better. The problem is that work isn’t like their childhoods. It can be dull and hard, other people expect that you’ll put in the time and energy necessary to complete it satisfactorily, and coworkers have their own responsibilities and lives they value just as much as Millennials do theirs.

So, given that Millennials have been trained to expect from the workforce what no one they work with plans on giving them, how should Boomers work with them or manage them? That is the question.

Boomers need to understand why Millennials are the way they are and why they have the expectations they have. Judging them for expecting the things they were trained to expect is unproductive and leads to Millennials feeling insulted and alienated, neither of which makes them more likely to cooperate or meet expectations.

Boomers need to communicate what expectations they have of their younger coworkers. This needs to be clearly and explicitly stated and repeated because it goes against Millennials’ experience.

Boomers need to try and give Millennials positive feedback when possible and recognize their need for mentoring. Work can’t always be personally rewarding, but reward systems can be implemented to better meet the needs of different generations. Millennials do have skills and abilities that can make the workplace better, and they are eager to show what they can do. They want to be valuable.

In return, Millennials will have to adjust to the workplace as it really exists, populated by people with different values and work habits. Many of the articles about tension in the workplace include lots of suggestions about how to accommodate Millennials, but the reality is they are still outnumbered, and they will have to change too. They have to respect that Boomers and Generation Xers have been in the workplace longer and have more knowledge and experience as well as their own goals. They will have to follow the rules instead of make or renegotiate them. And they will have to get used to some disappointment. Either that, or they will have to make their own work and their own opportunities.

Millennials are a big generation, and they are the future of our workplace. Through understanding, communication, and clear consequences for a job done well or poorly, we can work better together.