Boomers and Millennials: Can’t We Just Get Along?

Boomers and Millennials: Can’t We Just Get Along?

By: Jim Gitney   |     October 25, 2010

Businesses are just now beginning to wrestle with harmonizing between generations of workers and managers that may be as different as any combinations that have preceded them: the post WWII Boomers and Millennials. Can they get along and how do you create a culture of strategic execution with them?

There continue to be many Boomers still in the work force, partly due to their need to delay retirement in hopes of rebuilding wealth lost during the recent downturn. Millennials, generally viewed as having been born between about 1980 and 2001, are beginning to establish themselves professionally in the throes of the toughest economy since the Great Depression.
The challenges that executives face in blending these two American generations pertains to the differences that prevail for these two groups. The following characterizes the (very sweeping) general differences:

Baby Boomers Millennials
Family Background “Traditional”: working father, stay-at-home mother; often indulged by parents Working parents, as likely divorced as not; often protected by parents
Ethnic Identity Clearly delineated, sensitive to racial and nationality differences Racially varied or multi-racial; race and nationality are non-factors
Competitive Orientation Confrontational, individualistic, self-confident, ambitious Collaborative, “Everybody gets a trophy;” community orientation
Political Orientation Skeptical regarding institutions; “change the system,” attack “oppression” Optimistic, trusting; “work within the system;” globally and socially conscious
Rewards Orientation Individual rewards emphasis; one needs to “pay dues” before getting ahead; longer-term emphasis Instant gratification and meaningful work; flexibility and work-life balance highly valued
Work Expectations Hard work and self-reliance, leading to a prestigious position; employer loyalty valued; career oriented Abundant feedback, clarity of goals, lots of variety, flexible work environment; see job as an “project;” balance oriented
Education/Philosophy Orientation Freedom of expression; need to know “What?” and “Why?;” can/will endure/persevere to meet long-term goals Curiosity and encouragement oriented; need structure and accountability; need to know “How?;” typically short attention span, so high variety needed
Communications (internet, PC) Technology A second language; bias toward face-to-face or telephone dialog Their native tongue; expect constant flow, openness to and variety of new ideas

So how can companies and executives establish harmony in environment with a workforce comprised of generations with such differences? Clearly, one size does not fit all, but there may be some principles that can help get the most out the blend of the Boomers and Millennials generation:

  • Start with what enables business success regardless of the work force’s makeup: clarity of the company’s purpose and strategy, linked to clear objectives and related employee goals and accountabilities. This will appeal to Millennials while benefiting Boomers and others in the organization.
  • When in doubt, design organizational processes for Millennials – many Boomers have secretly craved the flexibility and balance that the millennial mindset favors, but have not felt it their place to ask for or expect such things. The Millennial bias aligns pretty well with lean business (e.g., flexible and adaptive processes, collaborative/team-based work systems, emphasis upon pace, etc.), which progressive companies are tending already toward.
  • Emphasize archiving and documentation among the more seasoned Boomers, in order to capture (and share) their experience and know-how – this will not only respect the knowledge of more seasoned workers, but will better prepare and train the up-and-coming work force.
  • Think of training methods and/or experiences that will help “toughen up” the Millennials in your work force, who have generally had a somewhat protected and abundant upbringing. Leaders are built by adversity and diversity—the Millennial upbringing often features lots of diversity, but perhaps too little adversity. Managed “boot camp” or other activities aimed at building “mental toughness” will not only benefit the Millennial worker, but will also help them establish credibility in the eyes of Boomer colleagues.

Effectively working with boomers and millennials and the generations in-between requires a well thought through organizational development strategy that follows the principles of the Business Hierarchy of Needs®.

If you want to find out more about the Group50 Organizational Development Practice and how we deal with boomers and millennials, call us at (513) 508-0351 or send an email to or request more information here.

This entry was posted in Organizational Development, on October 25, 2010

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