The Other Side of the Generation Gap

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It seems like each day I stumble onto an article, blog post, or special report about the Generational gap in the workplace.  It starts out productive for all points of view : how Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials can work together… and then it takes a sharp turn and becomes a tutorial for dealing with young people.  Typically, these how-to’s are sugarcoated in lots of “compli-sults” (insults shrouded in a faux / weak compliment, e.g. “stuck in their cell phones, but great with technology!”), and generalizations about one of the most diverse generational ranges in history : 1981-2000 covers a lot of ground.  Think about that : right now, Millennials range from 14 to 33 years old.  Some of us are divorced parents by now, and some can’t even drive.  When the recession hit, we were somewhere between 8 and 27.

As a response to these seminars (often lasting several hours) and dime-a-dozen lessons, I’d like to turn the tables for one moment and look at it from the other side of the equation.  As a Millennial, how do you deal with Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers in the workplace?

For a little bit of background, there are 4 main generations in the workforce right now : Traditionalists (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980) and Generation Y / Millennials (1981-2000).  Each has their strengths and weaknesses, some more publicized than others.  Traditionalists have immense knowledge, having been in the workforce the longest, but the biggest struggle with technology.  Baby Boomers are dedicated and “live to work,” as one once told me, where as younger generations have a more “work to live” attitude.  Gen X’ers and Millennials share many similarities, in that they don’t place much value on working long hours and strive to accomplish things within their 40 hour work week, but tend to be a bit more pragmatic and practical,  vs. the well-known optimistic / self-inventive spirits of Generation Y.

For the purposes of this post, let’s focus on the biggest rivalry in the office right now : Baby Boomers + Gen Y.  The advice given to Baby Boomers typically focuses on a few key traits seen in your “average” Millennial : we need a lot of hand-holding and feedback, we need positive reinforcement frequently, we need to know everything immediately and think we can do everything immediately, we’re over-entitled and lazy, and we have no respect for formal communication in the office.  Why bother, right?  For one minute, though, let’s drop the stereotypes and really look at that diversity among this generation that I mentioned earlier.  Yes, some of us were raised (by Baby Boomers…) to be extremely entitled and lazy.  Some were so young they were practically oblivious to the recession, and have graduated just in time to watch it come back up.  But some of us (ahem, like your’s truly) graduated months before the financial market (led by Baby Boomers..) crashed and were the first to be mindlessly laid-off (by Baby Boomers..).  An easy target, who had to claw their way back into the workforce or get left behind.  We’re graduating right now with the highest student loan averages in history, a resume full of unpaid internships, and are finally working for folks predisposed to assuming we don’t deserve anything we have.

Let’s look at from the other point of view : as a Millennial, how do you bridge the generation gap and work successfully with Baby Boomers?  Penelope Trunk writes that knowing how to manage your baby-boomer boss “will not be easy.  You’re dealing with someone so different from you that he or she sits through PowerPoint presentations about your emoticons.”  Baby Boomers come with a lot of experience, but also with a lot of challenges we have to overcome.  As the largest population boom in history, the boomers ruled the world.  Every show, movie, song, or advertisement revolved around them.  Sound familiar?  What a struggle they must’ve been for their parents from the Golden Age…  They grew up in the age of prosperity, and it was their hard work that built our country into being the great nation it is today.    Conversely, they’re lost today.  Dinosaurs in the age of technology, Baby Boomers are having a hard time keeping-up with apps, operating systems, texting and Skype.  In a world too fast-paced to wait on snail mail, Boomers need a little bit of patience as they learn that floppy disks are out and the Cloud is in.

So how do we overcome these challenges, managing your managers?  Whether you like it or not, step one is to prove yourself.  Meet your deadlines, pull your weight, and accomplish your goals.  You’re a strong worker who might feel more efficient (yet impatient) than your superiors, but they need to see your work ethic come to life.  Step two, be flexible with communication.  Sure, texting is faster and we can hold 5 conversations over instant messenger simultaneously to get the answers we need all the sooner, but your boss likes the formalities.   They’re not your friends and want to make sure you know it : keep it professional, mind your language, and be respectful.  Ask for their advice even if you don’t want it… Makes ‘em feel good.  And third, manage their expectations and yours.  When they set goals for you, respectfully discuss goals you have for yourself, as well.  You’re driven and it’s okay to show that.  That said, don’t expect a treat (or bonus) every time you do your job well.   There are 26 million young people in the developed world who are currently not working, in school, or in training of some sort.  You’re lucky to have a job, so that paycheck each month is your ‘atta boy, not the $50 spot-bonus you think your boss owes you for helping him out on a firedrill.  Manage your expectations for rewards and you’ll be a lot more content with the way you’re treated in the workplace.

All in all, we’ll get through this, guys.  We’re a strong generation of 20 and 30 somethings who were raised by hippies believing we were God’s gift to the creative world, then thrown into a financial crisis with nothing but hoodies and debt.  Every generation goes through this – but we’re smart.  We create jobs when we can’t find them – 60% of those entering the workforce today are turning their back on traditional jobs and starting their own business, inventing their own products, and selling their own ideas.  We know that the harder we work, the higher we’ll climb and we won’t have to wait until we’re in our 50s to do it.  With a lot of respect and a lot of patience, we’ll get there, taking over the world one text at a time.

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