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How Boomers Can Play Nice With Millennials at Work

First, understand them better. Then, kindly offer guidance.


Although labeled as entitled, self-absorbed and sheltered, Millennials are more than 80 million strong, outnumbering the boomers. Here, two boomers — who parent and work with Millennials — offer their take on the generation gap and how boomers can help bridge it:

The anecdotes have become stereotypes: Millennials — those graduating from college from roughly 2003 to 2018 — arriving at job interviews in flip-flops, inquiring immediately about telecommuting policies and expecting quick and painless ascensions up the corporate ladder. Some even more egregious personal observations (with names changed to protect the not-so-innocent):

  • Janet, an Ivy League graduate and fledgling TV reporter, is connected by her father with a professional peer who worked in TV news earlier in her career. Now toiling in a small town with an eye toward moving on to a more exciting market, Janet is in search of career advice. But over two meetings in a coffee shop, Janet never once rises to greet the communications pro who is making time to mentor her, nor does she even offer to buy her a beverage.
  • Chris, the sole Millennial at a workplace training session with a major East Coast healthcare system, plops down in her assigned seat, feet on the chair, knees in the air and heels tucked under her rear end. Even in leggings, it’s not a pretty sight — and far from a professional one.
  • Frantic parents arrive at the local emergency room where their daughter has been admitted and the twentysomething at ER Reception doesn’t look up from her computer. When the parents inquire about their daughter, the receptionist boredly intones, “Through the doors and take a right” without making eye contact.

(MORE: How to Get Along With Younger Co-Workers)

How the Generations Differ

These and other anecdotes are plentiful enough to have emerged as trends.

Amid numerous studies, this year’s National Professionalism Survey by York College of Pennsylvania’s Center for Professional Excellence reported that one-third of professors and HR professionals cited declining professional behavior by students. (This included failings to project a professional image, dress appropriately for work and use social media appropriately.)

There’s no disputing that the Millennial generation is regarded as different — and generally not in a good way, at least according to the last U.S. generational tidal wave, the boomers.

As MTV’s 2012 “No-Collar Workers" survey found when it asked boomers and Millennials how companies can inspire great work, a standard boomer response was, “‘Give me my objectives and get out of the way,’” while a typical Millennial sought “‘flexibility, respect … and snacks.’”

All of this points to inevitable tensions. The good news is that in addition to being the largest age grouping in American history, Millennials also compose one of the country’s most-studied generations. Insights gleaned by quizzing and surveying them can help boomers peaceably and productively co-exist with them.

(MORE: Boomers' Love/Loathe Relationship With Millennials)

5 Intergenerational Tips for Boomers at Work

Here are our five suggestions:

1. Be prepared to provide constant coaching and feedback. Millennials have spent a lifetime getting regular, near-instantaneous feedback. Whether it’s a lightning-quick response to a text message or school tests that are computer-graded and posted to an Internet gradebook within an hour or two, this is how this generation has been conditioned to live, work and play.

The good news is that while feedback needs to be continual, it doesn’t have to be involved or formal: the aforementioned text, email, or two-minute conversation can do the trick.

(MORE: Generational Training: What's In It for Boomers)

2. Appreciate that Millennials see work as a means to an end — but not the end. Millennials largely are children of boomers and witnessed, up close and personal, the devastation of layoffs, underemployment and eroding pay and benefits for their parents. They can be motivated to work hard, but are more likely to reject the 60-hour weeks their parents put in.

A two-year study completed last year by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that its Millennial workforce sought benefits in line with that philosophy — such as reduced pay for fewer work hours.

Millennials’ childhood social lives also influence their workplace expectations. Having grown up with calendars chock-full of playdates, sport teams and extracurricular activities, almost nine in 10 Millennials want workplaces to be social and fun, MTV found.

3. Be a Millennial mentor. Three-quarters of Millennials want a mentor (although ideally more in the likeness of a personal Yoda than an authority figure), according to MTV’s survey. And boomers’ experience and powers of persuasion can come in handy in counseling Millennials that, for example, flip-flops and cut-offs are generally not acceptable work attire and that continuously posting images to Instagram while at work is a no-no.

4. Illustrate the power of spending more time with people than with electronic devices. Millennials are technologically savvy — and proud of it. But numerous studies have found them wanting in the “soft skills” necessary for long-term career success: integrity, professionalism and the ability to interact effectively with superiors, colleagues, clients and customers. None of those skills can be learned with eyes glued to a smart phone.

Millennials need to realize that, at least for the near-term, people — not technology — do the hiring and promoting. When Millennials are tempted to email or text a complex question or response, boomers can do them a favor by highlighting the value of picking up the phone or better yet, walking over and actually talking face-to-face.

5. Recognize that each generation has complained that the one succeeding it is irresponsible, selfish, entitled, lazy, etc. Had social media existed during the prime of the boomers, “can you imagine how many frickin’ Instagrams of people playing in the mud during Woodstock we would’ve seen?” Scott Hess, senior vice president of insights for media agency Sparks SMG, asked Time in a 2013 cover article titled, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” (Time, interestingly, neglected to note that once upon a time, boomers were also labeled “The Me Generation.”)

A number of respected academicians and social scientists have pointed to Millennials’ earnestness, can-do attitude, and optimism as ways they’re similar to their grandparents and great-grandparents, known as, ahem, “The Greatest Generation.”

As Hess asked in his TEDxSF Talk, Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them, “We have embraced the idea of evolution in all other areas of life. Can’t we agree to do it in the generation that follows us?”

Stephanie Nora White is a partner with WPNT Ltd., a business communications training and strategy consultancy that supports Fortune 500 executives and managers worldwide. She is also a boomer and mother of three Millennials. A fellow boomer, Tom Tischhauser is a principal in the executive coaching firm Wynstone Partners, and father of two Millennials.

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