A video that’s gotten a lot of Youtube attention features a self-absorbed Millennial job applicant being interviewed by a matter-of-fact Baby Boomer. Her head hovers over her phone during most of the conversation, popping up now and then to offer the interviewer a couple of off-hand remarks (Facebook is for old people and I can’t possibly get to work before 10:30) before diving back into whatever she’s doing on her phone.
Needless to say, the interview doesn’t go well. When the Boomer manager tells her she won’t be getting the job, she huffs out of the room in what one might call an entitled snit.
As the mother of rational hard-working Millennials, I know firsthand this depiction is an exaggeration. But the video is popular because some (many?) Boomers and Gen X-ers do think Millennials should spend less heads-down time in Snapchat and more heads-up time in meetings. Meanwhile some (many?) Millennials think Boomers and Gen X-ers are too attached to regular schedules and the grind of long workdays. They need to lighten up about 24×7 connectedness — maybe even try it — and work from home on Fridays!
“The Millennials in my office think that working from home on Fridays is part of our regular work schedule,” a corporate real estate manager said to me recently. “It bugs me that they just assume I’m OK with it.”
When I asked if he was concerned that “working from home” was a smokescreen for taking the day off, he said, “Oh, no, they get a lot done from home! More than they do in the office, in fact.”
Generations in Today’s Workplace
Today’s workplace is made up of three generations, primarily, according to Pew Research: Baby Boomers (those born 1946-64), Generation X-ers (1965-79), and Millennials (1980-95). In 2015, the breakdown was that Boomers comprised 29%, Gen X-ers 34%, and Millennials 34%. Forbes is predicting that Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce by 2020.
(The generation prior to Boomers, known as the “Silents,” made up 2% of the 2015 workplace. And if you did the math and noticed this doesn’t all add up to 100, that’s because that last 1% is made up of “Gen Edgers,” the term now being applied to the post-Millennial crowd.)
All of which means that just about any workplace is a mix of generations trying to navigate misunderstandings and stereotypes that arise, some of which arise just because cultural influences, customs, and conventions have changed over time. That’s what generational analysis examines. Like the corporate real estate manager (a Gen X-er, by the way), it’s easy to for Boomers to get annoyed with what they characterize as Millennial behavior — entitled, self-indulgent, naïve — and for Millennials to grow impatient with Boomers whom they characterize as rigid and tech-clueless.
So instead of all that name-calling and stereotyping, I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at the characteristics and advantages these generations bring to the workplace every day, according to generational researchers who specialize in such things. As a Boomer myself, I was reassured to read about the merits of Millennials. And to Millennials and Gen X-ers reading this, I hope you’ll make some similar discoveries about generations other than your own.
As with many misunderstandings at work, generational or otherwise, it’s always a good idea to take a step back and look for the upsides. Downsides are easy to find. (It’s why there are so many misunderstandings!) So the next time you find yourself looking across the generational divide with misgivings, here are some upsides to keep in mind about all the generations.
Millennials owe a debt of gratitude to Gen X-ers for bringing a new generational identity to the workplace, one in which self-sufficiency and resourcefulness are highly valued, along with minimal management and maximum independence. This, combined with a bit of Gen X cynicism, paved the way for the Millennial perspective.
Other Millennial advantages come from the time in history in which they grew up. For example, I’ve been surprised repeatedly by the exposure to other cultures that young people in this generation have had — high school students who spend a summer studying in South Korea, college students who opt for a gap year in Hungary, or who head to Ghana to work construction. The Millennial generation as a whole has had the broadest exposure to the world of any generation so far, thanks to all the ways in which the world has gotten smaller and flatter. They’re comfortable with many aspects of other cultures — food, conventions, religion, and more. In a global economy, that’s an asset.
Millennials are also famously technology-adept. Download an app you just heard about from an online friend of a friend in Belgrade and test drive it? No problem! Once upon a time, an application had to be user-friendly to get people to use it. Now, for Millennials, it simply has to exist.
Beyond mere willingness to explore, a Millennial’s ease with technology means they can keep multiple streams going at once, and when it comes to some jobs, that’s vital — such as marketing, where it’s important to keep pumping updates to social media while blasting newsletters to the right lists, posting to blogs, and exploiting all available online sources. Who better for that than tech-adept Millennials?
The problems enter the scene when Boomers and X-ers find Millennials over-reliant on technology. “No problem, I just ask Siri” says the Millennial in the Youtube job interview when the interviewer asks her about her analytical skills.
Conversely, Millennials criticize Boomers, and to some extent X-ers, for over-complicating things that technology has ostensibly made so much easier. Sure enough, you don’t have to go to City Hall and pour over crinkly files of census data anymore. But that doesn’t mean that Siri knows.
Boomers Are Like Millennials … in some ways
Millennials are eager to learn new skills. It’s not hard to see why that’s valuable, in this ever-changing (and ever-faster-changing) technical, financial, and geo-political landscape.
Boomers and X-ers like to learn new skills too, though Boomers are sometimes a little thrown by the pace of change.
Millennials like to work with purpose. It’s foremost among their professional values. Turns out, Boomers and X-ers do too. In fact, most workers want what they do to help make the world a better place.
Millennials assume that diversity and inclusion are how things should be. It’s not just a value; it’s a way of being. Actually, it’s kind of refreshing to realize that this generation feels this way. What Boomer, manager or otherwise, wouldn’t appreciate not having to deal with the problems that arise when diversity and inclusion are a struggle?
And Good to Know
I was interested to learn that Millennials like to share offices with other people. Boomers and X-ers entered the workforce aspiring to private offices, but Millennials apparently don’t. This doesn’t constitute a vast cultural divide, but it’s worth noting.
Millennial attire is often more relaxed. Boomer and X-er generations don’t mind relaxed attire, as long as its presentable to clients.
“The Other Generation”
Generations have complained about each other for about as long as there have been generations. We may be more tuned into the differences now because sociologists study the cultural and historical influences that affect various generations and let us in on their findings.
According to Pew Research, 10,000 Boomers reach retirement age every day, so the day is coming when Boomer/Millennial squabbles will subside because there won’t be any Boomers to squabble with. Then Millennials, as the principal generation in the workforce, will have to turn their attention to those crazy Gen Edgers who do things in the strangest ways.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.