An American company represents a microcosm of society at large. In any large business in this country, you have black and white, GEDs and doctorates, middle class and upper class, liberal and conservative, male and female, gay and straight, young and old. Everyone is represented in a massive convergence of people from all walks of life. It’s truly a model of society in every sense of the phrase.
And while this sort of diversity is great, challenges are still present. You could pick any collision of factors and discuss the issues associated with them, but one topic of conversation that’s particularly relevant today is the gap that exists between millennials and baby boomers in the workplace.
Understanding the characters.
The topic of millennials and boomers in the workplace is one that’s garnered a lot of attention over the last couple of years. As more and more millennials enter the workforce, we’re beginning to see these two large constituencies face off over beliefs, ideologies, needs, wants, problems, strengths and weaknesses, and a host of other factors.
While differences do exist between them, they aren’t insurmountable. With the right strategic leadership and management decisions, companies can use these discrepancies to their advantage. Before we look at some ways that companies, including yours, can close the generational gap in the workplace, let’s make sure we understand the cast of characters.
The term baby boomer refers to the American population born between 1946 and 1964 (give or take a couple of years). This means, in 2017, the average boomer is between 53 and 71 years old. Generally speaking, boomers are work-centric, independent, goal-oriented and competitive. They prioritize hierarchical management and structural fairness. And because people are retiring much later than they did in the past, there’s still a large number of boomers in the workplace (and will be for years to come).
The millennial label generally refers to those born between 1981 and 1997. In 2017, that means that the youngest millennials are 20 and the oldest millennials are 36. Millennials prioritize work-life balance and hope to find a “work family” that they enjoy being around; they are tech savvy but are not as interested in climbing the corporate ladder as they are in seeking out new experiences.
As you can see, age isn’t the only thing separating these two classes of professionals. There are some stark differences in their wants, needs, beliefs and skill sets. For some organizations, this is a scary reality. For others, it represents an opportunity to grow. But regardless of motivational factors, it’s something that must be dealt with.
Four ways to close the generational gap.
You can’t make a boomer into a millennial or a millennial into a boomer. Trying to force one generation into the mold of another is a recipe for disaster. However, you should attempt to close the generational gap in the workplace to ensure you’re maximizing the talent you have on the payroll.
Here’s some food for thought:
1. Everyone wants respect.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T….that’s what millennials and boomers both desire. Millennials want to be taken seriously and treated as professional counterparts. Boomers want to be valued and want millennials to respect their years of experience.
Closing the generational gap starts with understanding the importance of mutual respect. When millennials recognize the experience of boomers in the workplace, a healthy appreciation can form. When boomers stop treating millennials like their children and more like their peers, a lot of good can happen.
2. Proactively kill age segregation.
One of the big issues in many organizations is that millennials and boomers don’t interact on a regular basis. Millennials tend to hold entry level or mid-level positions, whereas boomers populate the upper echelons of the hierarchy. As a result, most of the interaction occurs when boomers give direction to millennials, or when millennials report results to boomers.
If you want to develop a healthy respect between these two groups, it can help to create blended teams and divisions. Put together teams that consist of both and give leadership responsibilities to members of each. This will feel strange at first, but will eventually create an environment where both groups are familiar with each other.
3. Tread lightly with tech.
“It’s no surprise that Millennials are the generation most likely to have a positive view of technology,” consultant Rieva Lesonsky says. “Nielsen reports more than 74 percent believe new technology makes their lives easier. No wonder 83 percent sleep with their smartphones, 51 percent use smartphones for work (compared to 31 percent of Gen X and 18 percent of Boomers) and 40 percent use social media in the bathroom!”
When coupled with the fact that boomers didn’t grow up with large amounts of technology and may be averse to using new tools and processes, a friction point emerges. Millennials get frustrated with the fact that boomers are stuck in their ways, while boomers are tired of constantly being bombarded by new technology. If you let it, things can become hostile on this front.
The key is to tread lightly. Millennials should seek to learn why boomers prefer their methods (even when they seem inefficient), and boomers need to become more open to change. Helping boomers understand the benefits of new technology -- not just the step-by-step of how something is done -- is very important.
4. Switch up the layout.
Don’t want to create sweeping reform or massive changes in how business is conducted? You can still encourage a natural merging of the generational gap simply by switching the layout of your office. Next time you hire a millennial employee, stick her desk next to a boomer. When a boomer gets a promotion, put his office next to the room where your interns work.
Related: How to Make the Most of an Intern
By switching up the layout of your office, you’re able to naturally facilitate organic conversation between these two groups. This is far more effective than any formal plan will ever be. Over time, you’ll notice new friendships and a healthier sense of community. It’ll take time, but the results will be worth it.
Building a stable foundation for the future.
In 2015, millennials overtook boomers as America’s largest generation in the workforce. However, as things currently stand, there are still exponentially more boomers in positions of leadership than millennials. This means boomers are largely calling the shots, while they’re primarily leading millennials. This will change in the years to come, but it’s hard to deny the fact that we’re at an interesting crossroads. How your organization works to close the generational gap in the workplace will have a decisive impact on the health of the company moving forward.