What can a Boomer Learn from a Millennial?

I had arrived early at a yoga class one evening, laid out my mat and settled in to unplug from my frustrating day before class began. I couldn’t help but overhear parts of a nearby conversation. Two women of the baby boomer generation were each complaining about younger colleagues with whom they worked. From their description of these young men, I assumed that they both in Millennials, born somewhere between 1980 and 2000. It was the usual rhetoric about their lack of experience, their cockiness and high expectations. “Ouch”, I thought. “I wish they wouldn’t describe these young men in such stereotypical terms.”

People are different and individuals are unique, but common experiences shape a generation’s thinking and causes them to bring different perspectives to the workplace. Bridging this generation gap at work could happen by recognizing that we are all at different stages of our lives, and possess different career aspirations and needs. As with any diversity challenge, figuring out what’s unique brings about greater understanding and a recognition that we have more in common than we realize. So what is it that these millennnials have experienced that differs from what my fellow yogis experienced? And what about Generation X which bridges the boomers and millennials?

Millennials were raised in the era of high technology making them would-be experts on everything. They were the CIOs of their neighborhoods growing up. Is it any wonder they assume that they know how to do everything? A recent client encounter involved an millennial who took an assignment and just run with it without waiting for clarification from his boss. His overly ambitious approach could have been disastrous since he lacked key pieces of information. However, he could not be faulted for his tenacity and desire to do a good job.

Gen Xs have been described using terms such as creative and pragmatic. They like innovation, challenging work, being on the cutting edge, and informality. Work-life balance is important to this generation who were raised by boomer parents.

In contrast, boomers were raised to believe that hard work pays off and is necessary to gain desired lifestyle. They were also the first generation of teenage consumers. As a result, they may be perceived as resenting the demands of today’s younger workers. Yet it was boomer women who led the charge for equality and flexibility in workplace. And the need and desire for flexibility, which is very much alive with subsequent generations and is shaping the workplace of the future.

I recently heard Peter Capelli, professor at the Wharton School of Business speak. He said that according to a survey by AARP, things that older employees want from their work experience include: A friendly environment, the ability to use their skills while learning something new, respect, the opportunity to help others, adequate paid time off, healthcare and insurance benefits, flexible scheduling, the opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted to do. The last item got my attention. Ironically, as a generation that came of age in a era of protests, we are still looking for an opportunity to make a contribution by doing something we’ve always wanted to do.

Rather then try to get them to conform to a workplace from the 1950s, why not let these generations lead the way to the future workplace. Over dinner one evening, a friend and I were discussing our observations about how levels of formality in the workplace had changed since we began our careers. She told about a conference where she heard by Tony Hsieh CEO of Zappos. Conform he doesn’t. He appeared on stage to give a keynote speech wearing jeans and tennis shoes. And yet his speech was very thought-provoking to this friend whose very appearance and demeanor defines professionalism as our generation was taught it should be. Tony Hsieh created a customer service company that happens to sell shoes. Mark Zuckerberg, the 27 year-old millennial founder of Facebook wants employees focused on making great products.

Listening to Hsieh, my friend found herself not questioning the appropriateness of his attire, but rather pondering what the workforce of the future would look like. If Zappos is treating its customers and employees well, isn’t that what counted? Isn’t a culture of respect and service more important than showing up to work in business attire, or even business casual? Would what worked in the past continue to work in the future? Isn’t it time we let them create a workplace where they can be comfortable so we take the opportunity to do something we’ve always wanted to do?


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