Soon, millennials will outnumber baby boomers in the workplace. Here’s how both generations can adjust—and thrive.
Julia Ritchey learns a lot from her baby boomer colleagues, especially those she oversees. Ritchey is a millennial and the managing editor of KUER 90.1 FM, National Public Radio (NPR), in Utah. She manages a team of seven, two of whom she believes are boomers.
Boomers (those born between roughly 1946 and 1964) are stereotyped as rigid and tech illiterate, while millennials (born between 1981 and 1997) are labeled as obsessed with their smartphones and entitled. These two groups are often described as having temperaments and priorities too disparate to understand each other.
Though she’s younger than many of her colleagues, including professionals she manages, Ritchey hasn’t encountered any scenarios in which different sensibilities or work styles have caused conflict. If anything, she’s learned a great deal from her colleagues. “The boomers I oversee chose not to climb the rungs of journalism into management, but they still know a lot about how a newsroom runs and the public radio industry,” she explains. “They also have institutional knowledge I lack as a Utah transplant, so they can provide context for decisions made before I took on this role.”
Still, the generation gap—or at least its perception—and how it plays out in the workplace are real. A 2015 Harvard Business Review study of 65,000 millennial and baby boomer workplace leaders measured both groups’ perceptions of millennials across 49 leadership characteristics. A number of themes emerged.
Negative perceptions of millennials:
• Teammates often do not trust the ideas and opinions of younger, less experienced coworkers.
• Younger workers have not been in the workplace long enough to have the requisite experience or deep knowledge.
• Younger leaders do not make strong role models, either because they don’t have the juice to control outcomes or because they advance so quickly that they do not have the ability to relate to those who have struggled.
• Younger workers are used to working longer workweeks and are perceived as insensitive when boomers resist.
• Younger leaders are perceived to lack strategic perspective and not be capable of presenting the company in an external meeting.
Positive perceptions of millennials:
• Younger leaders are more nimble and welcome change.
• Younger leaders have greater ability to inspire and excite their team.
• Younger workers are more willing to challenge the status quo and work for continual improvement.
• Younger workers are more focused on results.
• Younger workers are good at setting stretch goals.
Somehow, millennials and baby boomers are going to have to learn to work together. Many boomers are not retiring anytime soon, and according to a 2016 Pew study, millennials are on the verge of surpassing boomers as the largest generation in the United States—which means they will increasingly move into the higher echelons of leadership, either working with or supervising boomers.
Some millennial managers, like Ritchey, see the mixing of generations as a positive development, giving both generations the opportunity to learn from each other. She notes that, counter to some assumptions, her boomer employees are even more open to new ideas and workplace tools, which she finds refreshing and tries to encourage.
“I’ve been able to teach them new audio production skills and best practices in terms of social media,” she explains. One boomer colleague was cautious at first but soon warmed up to using the team’s Slack channel when she understood how much it would cut down on email. “I find boomers more eager than some of the younger people on my team—even my own peers—in wanting to try new things,” Ritchey says.
Bridging the generational skill and knowledge gap
Boomers worried about seeming obsolete to their younger colleagues can consider the mutual benefits of a mentor relationship. Renee Thompson, who is in gen X, thinks a lot about this crucial transfer of skills from one generation to the next. Thompson, who lives in Pittsburgh, is a registered nurse, a certified medical-surgical registered nurse, and a doctor of nursing practice. She’s also the president and CEO of RTConnections, a consulting firm she started to combat workplace bullying and teach effective communication. Thompson leads group discussions and trains nurses to communicate more effectively with one another. She says that, invariably, when she convenes a group to discuss and learn how to combat workplace incivility, generational differences come up.
Participants who come to her seminars often bring preconceived notions. Millennials frequently complain that their boomer colleagues don’t offer assistance or guidance, and seem threatened by their younger colleagues. The boomers say that younger nurses act like entitled know-it-alls and seem to expect special treatment. She says the key to altering those perceptions is finding individuals in the other age cohort who are open, helpful, and supportive. More than ever, these two groups need each other. Millennials only make up 18 percent of the nursing workforce now, but they will be crucial in replacing retiring boomers, the group that makes up a whopping 48 percent of the nursing workforce.
In business, making assumptions about aptitude and attitude based on someone’s perceived age doesn’t yield much productivity. Millennials understand that more senior professionals can often offer deep knowledge of their company or field, and through experience can provide valuable insights to younger colleagues. Likewise, teams work more productively when older employees recognize the energy and fresh ideas of those who may be decades younger. Bringing the two perspectives together can spark innovation.
Thompson recalls sitting next to a young woman on a flight. “I told her I was a nurse, and her eyes lit up!” she remembers. Her seatmate was in nursing school and, toward the end of the flight, asked Thompson for one piece of advice for becoming a successful nurse. “Seek out the wisdom and advice from an experienced nurse who doesn’t want to eat you,” Thompson told her. “Find us and allow us to guide you,” she added, noting that finding an older mentor has never been more crucial for professional success.
Stereotyping can be limiting. Not every boomer is slow to accept change, nor is every millennial trying to make the jump from college to the boardroom in five years. Not only can leveling stereotypes based on age be unfair, but it can also leave those who straddle generations feeling left out of the discussion.
Sarah Stankorb, born in 1980, is an older millennial (or young gen Xer, depending on which parameters are used) who tends to straddle the divide between stereotypes. The Wyoming, Ohio, councilwoman and writer, who was at a loss to describe her unique generational attributes, coined the term Xennial in a 2014 article for GOOD magazine. “I felt too sullen to be a millennial but not sullen enough to be a gen Xer,” she explains.
Stankorb sees straddling the generational divide as a strength. “Xennials can serve as interpreters of sorts, like good middle children everywhere who are adept at understanding the more extreme personalities of their older and younger siblings,” she says. Boomers who can locate older millennials in an office crowded with younger faces may find a compassionate, serious professional ally with whom they can skillfully navigate the workplace.
Being successful in nearly any professional environment requires many of the same skills and attributes that are generally useful for pleasant, productive relationships: empathy and mutual understanding, cultivating curiosity instead of dismissiveness, and checking assumptions about how the other person communicates and works.
At Utah’s NPR station, Ritchey adds that working with colleagues of different ages has been more rewarding than she could have anticipated. “I’ve learned that having a little patience when making changes, for anyone of any age, pays off,” she says. DW
Brittany Shoot is an Xennial journalist who mostly works with gen Xers. Find her online at brittanyshoot.com.