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Bert Zinkand
Director

PRACTICAL RESEARCH REPORT #16 

Baby Boomers and Generation X : Bridging the Gap

Baby boomers and Generation Xers have been working side by side for more than a decade now. Yet each group, driven by different values, is often insulted by the other’s demands and expectations. Workplace experts say the generations frequently disagree on company loyalty, job rewards, authority, tenure, teamwork, work/life balance, career sacrifices and more. Some days, it seems like life with the Bickersons.

“Generational conflicts impact the bottom line in all sorts of ways,” says Lynne Lancaster, co-author of “When Generations Collide at Work.” That includes corporate cultures that short-circuit recruiting efforts, lost productivity, costly failures of communication and resentment at slanted rewards programs. “Some 70% of companies have flex-time and tele-work policies,” she says, “but if boomer managers don’t like them or don’t trust working that way, they truly frustrate the purpose.”

In this reluctant economy, more than ever, employers must harness the different strengths and skills of each group. Business owners need to find ways to motivate, manage and retain both generations; otherwise, the best leaders and producers will slip away. I offer tips on how to do this below.

Why Their Perspectives Differ

Boomers and Gen Xers, of course, walk into work carrying loads of generational baggage. Here is how many experts I’ve interviewed characterize the two generations and their differences:

Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, number almost 80 million strong. Now in their 40s and 50s, seeing dreams of retirement slide with the stock market, boomers are edgy but still arrogant. They’re used to dominating every trend and every marketplace. They’re generally optimistic and often idealistic, a legacy of the 1960s.

“Boomers tend to give themselves over to their jobs,” says Claire Raines, author of “Generations at Work.” They believe in paying dues, playing by the rules and building careers. Their feedback and guidance is indirect and considerate of people’s feelings. “They’re process-oriented,” Raines says. “They’re trained to believe that business results and relationships are intertwined.”

Generation X, on the other hand, is the little cohort that could. Born between 1965 and 1980, this group numbers only 46 million. Writes Jay A. Conger, professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School and a research scientist, in a 1998 magazine article titled “How ‘Gen X’ Managers Manage”:

What we are seeing in Generation Xers is a different set of attitudes about the workplace. In a nutshell, they distrust hierarchy. They prefer more informal arrangements. They prefer to judge on merit rather than on status. They are far less loyal to their companies. They are the first generation in America to be raised on a heavy diet of workplace participation and teamwork. They know computers inside and out. They like money, but they also say they want balance in their lives.

Gen Xers grew up in latchkey homes at ease with technology. They’re self-reliant and impatient, these experts agree. When thousands of their parents were laid off in the early 1990s, Gen X decided company loyalty was a sucker act. Achieving goals is the key, so why should rules matter. Dot-com dollars and digital prowess made job-hopping and success a snap, though nowadays, job security and benefits seem sort of attractive. Their management style is blunt and unadorned, focused on getting the work done, not bonding. Gen Xers are independent, skeptical and flexible. They are results-oriented.

“To get ahead,” says Raines, “boomers learned to be diplomatic, to believe in people skills. But Xers see boomers as schmoozers, full of doublespeak.” Put this mix into the workplace and watch tensions rise.

Why Bother to Bridge the Gap

It’s hardly a news flash. The big bulge of boomers is aging. About 10,000 boomers turn 55 every day, and many will leave in the next few years. At half the boomer size, Gen X can’t begin to fill all the jobs. The coming-up group, known as Millennials or Generation Y, is a muscular 76 million. But its oldest member has scarcely reached 21.

Soon business will face critical shortages of talent, skills and leadership. “What do we do about aging” asks Bruce Tulgan, author of “Winning the Talent Wars.” First, says Tulgan, we must facilitate ways for boomers to work in semi-retirement. Next, he says, “we must facilitate the transfer of knowledge between the generations.”

If long-term consequences don’t motivate you to work at closing the gap, consider immediate payoffs. Today’s anytime, anywhere workplace has pushed cumbersome, hierarchical firms into being nimble and collaborative. Power is now hands-on and directed to the front lines.

These shifts have helped propel Gen Xers to the top at much younger ages than generations before them. Top-level managers are no longer the oldest in the company. Gen Xers everywhere are managing their elders making many boomers mad and envious.

Lately, however, that feeling has been dissipating. “The conflict has lessened some and the jealousy factor dropped as Gen X has not been hired over boomers,” Lancaster says.

As resources and profits tighten, employers are valuing boomer institutional knowledge. So while Gen X likes to plunge ahead and often reinvent the wheel, boomers generally have deeper experience. They can harness smart, cost-effective solutions that work right away. No matter which group manages, the generations can make quite a splash working with each other, instead of against each other.

How You Build Bonds

Typically, neither side recognizes generational conflicts when they flare. People think the disagreements are because of age “He’s so out of touch” or “She has no work ethic.” Alternately, antagonists figure it’s a personality thing “She’s a control freak” or “He has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.”

Of course, individual differences will always play out. But often, simply raising the concept of the generational model gets employees talking. “Instead of differences between you and me, it turns into differences between boomers and X,” Raines says. “People stop seeing it as personalized.” That’s a lot easier to talk through.

To attract the best talent and get the generations working together, consider these tactics:

  • Create cross-mentors of Gen Xers and boomersLet each side educate the other or exchange specialized skills.
  • When recruiting, focus on how the job benefits the applicant, not just the company. Pitch your message toward generational values.
  • Manage people as individuals. “The one-size-fits-all approach to managing people has to go,” Tulgan says. “You must really engage with people.” Boomers respond to recognition, counseling, one-to-one feedback. Gen Xers like to be left alone to get the job done sometimes outside of 9-to-5 workdays.
  • Set up programs for flexible or semi-retired workYou want to retain older workers in part-time, project or advisory roles.
  • Set up continuous learning programs to retain workers. Gen X has taught boomers the value of jumping jobs. In the current economic climate, the number of job-hoppers is declining. In 2002, 30% of employees say they are always looking for a better opportunity, a drop from 39% in 2000, according to the Randstad North America and RoperASW annual employee satisfaction survey. Still, that’s almost a third of the workforce. And it’s the top talent that gets the offers.
  • Challenge each generation with appropriate responsibilities. Put Gen X into management positions. Make boomers change agents.

“Generational differences,” Raines says, “are based primarily on assumptions and unconscious criteria.” If you can push aside your stereotypes, and just ask your staffers what they need and how they prefer to be managed, you’ll be way ahead of the generational game.

My thanks to Joanna L. Krotz of Muse productions for putting this wonderful article together. For more marketing and management advice, visit Joanna’s company website, Muse2Muse Productions.com.

Contact Information

If you would like to discuss the above or would like assessments to help you hire the right employee and bridge the generational gap, please call Employee Selection and Development, Inc. at 800-947-5678 or write to president@employeeselect.com