Baby Boomer/Generation Y Conflict
Expectations can be tricky and this is no different in the workplace! As I listen to some Baby Boomer managers relate their frustrations about working with Generation Y (millennials) workers, their two main complaints center on their perceptions of the younger generation’s work ethic and sense of entitlement. These managers express that Generation Y workers want the honors of the workplace without putting in the sacrifices to earn them.
The Baby Boomer/Generation Y Conflict is a good title that I often use to describe this new millennium divide between Boomers and Gen Y workers. This conflict comes from different life experiences and generational expectations. Can Baby Boomers and Generation Y just get along? The answer is yes! As managers understand and account for the generational differences, they can move workplace dynamics from frustration and conflict to productivity and mutual understanding. To do so, we have to first understand Boomers and Generation Y.
Born between 1943 and 1960, Boomers, grew up in an environment of societal upheaval where challenging authority and the status quo were the norm. As noted by Ron Zemke in his book, Generations at Work, significant events of the Boomer generation include the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women’s liberation movement, the Cold War, and political assassinations. Boomers, reflect that time in many ways: they tend to think they can change the world (or at least their slice of it) and they want to fulfill their own individual goals and potential. They come to the workplace confident, prepared to work hard, and expecting to be rewarded for their efforts. (Boomers love the old ad slogan: Be all that you can be! It’s their motto.)
Born between 1980 and 2000, Gen Y workers grew up in an environment of adult attention where monitoring, recognition, and support were the norm. Significant events of their generation include technology, protective parenting, school yard violence, multi-culturalism, and the Oklahoma City bombing (Zemke). Gen Y workers reflect this time in many ways: they are the most technically savvy generation and they are the most indulged generation. Gen Y workers come to the workplace with confidence and a continuing expectation of recognition and support independent of results. (Gen Y workers are used to an environment where everyone is rewarded just for showing up. Have you ever attended or heard of the modern kid’s birthday party where gifts are shared by all who come–not just the birthday child?)
With the understanding that Generation Y workers have significantly different life experiences and expectations, Boomer managers can adjust their own interaction style and move from frustration and conflict to mutual understanding and productivity. Emerging research shows the following four approaches work well at engaging Gen Y workers:
- Give Frequent Feedback
Gen Y workers are used to immediate feedback on how they are doing. It comes from their digital world where information is shared frequently and quickly. Give them ongoing feedback. Be sure to balance the feedback: tell them what they did well as well as tell them how they can improve.
- Coach and Mentor Rather than Supervise
Many Gen Y workers are used to multiple supportive adults in their lives who indulged and praised them. They respond better to coaching and mentoring that focuses on outcomes than a management style that is primarily direct and control.
- Explain Workplace Standards and the Rationale Behind Them
Boomer managers sometimes make the assumption that Gen Y workers are rude or disrespectful of authority. More often, however, Gen Y workers do not understand normal standards of workplace behavior. For example, Gen Y workers often expect immediate responses from their bosses on whatever they communicate to them. This comes from their life experiences. They have had cell phones at a young age and are masters at communicating through text messages, social media, etc. Further, they are used to calling the adults in their lives and getting immediate attention. They bring these expectations to the workplace.
Some Gen Y workers need help in understanding basic business etiquette as they enter the workplace where they are no longer the focal point of attention. For some Gen Y workers, this may be the first time that they have had these types of limitations placed on them. Boomer managers can help the transition of Gen Y workers to the real world and gain their employee’s acceptance by explaining the company’s general standards of behavior with the reasons why this behavior is needed.
- Support work/life balance
Boomers are partly responsible for the importance of work/life balance programs to Gen Y (and Gen X) workers. These younger generations have seen the toll that work has taken on some Boomers and decided that they want some balance in their lives. Many do not want to work like Boomers have done. Boomer managers can engage Gen Y workers by supporting workplace flexibility and work/life balance. For these younger generations, work/life balance is among their top working priorities.
Expectations are hard to manage and different generations have different workplace expectations! Boomer and Generation Y conflict does not have to continue however. When Boomer managers understand these differences, they can both adapt their own interaction style and educate others to promote organizational productivity. These generations do not have to continue to collide in the workplace!
Read more about the four generations.