The world of business is in the early stages of a power transfer from the Baby Boomers to the Millennials (also known as Generation Y). As always, when a younger generation begins to exert power over an older one, there is discomfort and tension on both sides. As a business Boomer who went through the preceding generational transition, I have three observations to help Millennials take the reins with a firm but gentle grip. (By the way – although these observations apply mainly to Millennials, I think almost all of this applies to Generation X as well.)
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1. We Need Each Other
We Boomers had it easy. As we moved into management positions, most of our predecessors got out of the way by retiring at 65. But Millennials, I have bad news for you. You’re stuck with us. Life expectancies have risen over the last few decades, and economic conditions have deteriorated. As a result, either by choice or necessity, Boomers are staying in the workforce well past the traditional retirement age. You’re going to have to deal with us for another 10, maybe 20 years. Whereas young managing old was a short-term novelty for us, it’s going to be a long-term business skill for you.
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What will make the job easier for you is this: we need you! Boomers are counting on you to come up with ideas to make the economy grow, to be good stewards and courageous leaders. If you don’t do these things, our golden years will be black. And on a day-to-day level, we enjoy working with you because your energy keeps us young. There will always be a few grumpy old men and women, but, for the most part, you should find us receptive to change and eager to help.
2. We Are Digital Immigrants
Millennials grew up in a digital world. We had to adapt to technology much later in life, which has been no easy task. The dynamic between digital natives and digital immigrants is very much like the one our parents’ generation experienced in the 1930s and ’40s. Immigrants, mainly from Europe, didn’t speak the language or spoke it clumsily. They didn’t know how to do things, were socially awkward, and appeared slow on the uptake. I think this is how Boomers come off to Millennials when we use digital technologies — and let’s face it, we often feel that way ourselves, being surrounded as we are by co-workers who speak the digital language fluently.
You may think us dim-witted and out of touch, but we aren’t helpless. There’s a middle ground you need to find when coaching us up on digital skills, between treating us like first graders and racing through the lesson as though we were born with smartphones in our hands.
There’s another dimension to this with serious business implications. We tend to see Millennials as being terrific at gathering information, but not so terrific at analyzing it or at thinking things through. We come from a time when research meant 10 hours poring over books rather than 10 minutes skimming through Google searches. The challenge — and the opportunity — for Millennials is figuring out how to leverage our analytical skills and admittedly ponderous work habits to cut down on missteps and maximize business results.
3. We Are Not All the Same
Stereotyping is always dangerous, and with Boomers, it simply can’t be done — our life experiences are fundamentally different. If you understand a bit about what formed our worldviews, you’ll have an easier time understanding and leading us.
A great example of the stark differences among Boomers is the Vietnam War.
Early Boomers (whom I’ll call Patriots), those born toward the beginning of the line in 1946, were still very close to the World War II experience and didn’t question the need when they were asked to serve their country.
Middle Boomers (Protesters), who came a little later, couldn’t have been more different. This was the anti-war, free love, drugs and rock and roll wing of our generation. Instead of standing in line to enlist, these Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.
Late Boomers (Pragmatists), who appear around the end of the line in 1964, came of age when these earlier Boomer extremes were engaged in intellectual, and at times physical, combat. Perhaps as a result, this group was and continues to be all over the board in its thinking. Too young to serve in Vietnam, they were never forced to make a full commitment one way or another.
Trying to pigeonhole a generation like this into a convenient management box is futile; even in my example, I’m making generalizations that don’t apply to each member of a group. However, the more you know about the events that shaped us in our formative years, the better you’ll be able to anticipate our responses. For instance, an early Boomer is apt to be a good soldier, following your lead right or wrong. A middle Boomer will fight you every step of the way, whereas a late Boomer will judge every one of your decisions on its own merits.
Sound complicated? It probably is, but let’s take comfort in knowing that whatever the generation, we have a lot in common. In the end, Millennials and Boomers want the same things: power, prestige, security. Those are powerful common denominators that make me optimistic that business will get better, not worse, in the decade ahead.
Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an Internet marketing agency in the Chicago area. With in-house, freelance and agency experience, he writes frequently about content marketing, SEO, social media and small business strategy.