Boomers and Gen Y’ers: Expect some conflict

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

A marine business, acting in the manner of Adam Smith, the pioneering 18th century economist, will tend to hire people with minimal qualifications and at lower pay rates than those it laid off two to four years ago as the economy was sliding. The new hires likely will be younger workers.

In addition to ethnic differences, which will vary greatly across the country, the most common differences among workers will be their ages and their employee-relations preferences. Consider two generational groups and the challenges they pose for their managers.

Baby boomers

What are the important variables in the management of boomers? You probably have seen these folks the longest and might be one of them. They tend to have several non-work-related interests that need to be accommodated properly in order to motivate them.

Volunteer culture: More than 50 percent of the people in this age group have become involved in volunteer activities such as the environment, conservation, the poor and needy, or their church. If the employer is not sympathetic to their need for support in their causes, the boomer loses interest in work. Businesses increasingly are drawn into “causes” by their employees.

Another distraction is pressure from relatives. Many boomers are caught between older relatives who need help — financial or otherwise — and their own children, who may seek to move back in with their parents or need financial support, or both. This could require unexpected time off or a strong need for personal support and a good listening post. A manager who actively listens is critical, but this link commonly is missing on the job.

Need for autonomy: Boomers want to be involved in many activities and want the freedom to work their own schedules and be able to do other things that interest them. Women want this more than men do, but more than 75 percent among both genders have this desire. This means they want work-schedule flexibility and believe they have earned that right. Sound familiar?

Involuntarily delayed retirement: Even though the Social Security retirement age extends each year, many boomers lost considerable savings in the stock market and will need to work years longer than they had planned. This creates stresses, and it can be seen in changes in their behavior.

They might lack motivation, even though they need to work longer. Do managers know how to offer the encouragement needed for motivation? What is a major challenge management has as delayed retirement becomes a trend?

Retire on the job: Work has become the main aspect of life for half of all boomers; they gain their legitimacy from the work they do. The increasing presence of cubicles in offices is a great turnoff for them. It’s virtually impossible to change that perception, so the best remedy is a good selling job before adding new cubicles.

Generation Y

Now add a new “chemical” to the workplace mix and see what happens. What about the other end of the spectrum, the youngest workers — the ones you likely will be adding? USA Today has provided a rational description: “They’re young, smart, brash. They may wear flip-flops to the office or listen to iPods at their desk. They want to work, but they don’t want work to be their life.” But let’s drill deeper.

Generation Y folks also are known as the Millennial Generation, or Millennials, Generation Next, the Net Generation and Echo Boomers. Gen Y’ers love to connect with others, and workplace teams are a major motivator for them. It has become a major force in their lives, from school to college to the workplace.

Continual personal networking: Though boomers dislike them, cubicles are fine with Gen Y’ers because they facilitate social networking. They need their co-workers, their non-work friends, their family, even their managers to be instantly available. They often are seen texting on the job, and their iPhone is attached via a wireless umbilical cord. They spend time on Facebook keeping up to date (yes, at work also). How do you handle it?

Workplace impact: Bruce Tulgan, founder of Connecticut-based RainmakerThinking, has studied young people and advises that, unlike the generations before them, Gen Y’ers have been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers. They are high-performance and high-maintenance workers. Gen Y’ers are much less likely to respond to a traditional command-and-control management style. Gen Y folks grew up questioning their parents, their teachers and their institutions, and now they question their managers.

Change-driven: Gen Y’ers don’t expect to stay in a job, or even a career, for long, and they’re skeptical about such concepts as employee loyalty. They don’t even like to stay on one assignment for long. Multitasking is their middle name, and they can juggle        e-mails on their BlackBerry while talking on the phone and trolling online.

High expectations: They aim to work faster and better than other workers. They are very competitive and want to finish what they are doing and move on. They want managers to be fair and direct and highly engaged in their professional development. Gen Y’ers got constant feedback and recognition from teachers, parents and coaches and can be resentful or feel lost if they don’t get regular communication from their bosses. Millennials expect to be told how they’re doing on the spot (forget the annual reviews). Do your managers do that?

Ongoing learning: They seek creative challenges and view co-workers as vast resources from whom to gain knowledge. They are willing to seek expertise from others, not only to solve the instant problem but also to gain that expertise themselves. “Knowledge is power” has been drilled into their psychological DNA.

Immediate responsibility: They want to have an important impact on their first day. Promotions will be expected often; the status and recognition of their skills are important.

Goal-oriented: They want small goals with tight deadlines so they can build ownership of tasks. They crave the recognition their successes should bring; when there is no recognition early, they become less willing to excel.

Work-life balance isn’t just a buzzword. Unlike boomers, who put a high priority on career, today’s young workers are more interested in making their jobs accommodate their family and personal lives. They want flexibility; after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there is a greater realization that life is short.

Technology freaks: Gen Y’ers have total comfort with technology. Boomers might expect a phone call or an in-person meeting on important topics, but younger workers might prefer virtual problem solving. Is this not a recipe for conflict? Gen Y’ers often see anyone who is not up on the latest technology as useless. And when the boss is like that, no respect is likely to follow. Oops!

Bottom line: Some conflict is inevitable. More than 60 percent of employers say they are seeing tension between employees from different generations, according to a Lee Hecht Harrison survey. The survey found that more than 70 percent of older employees are dismissive of younger workers’ abilities. And nearly half of employers say younger employees are dismissive of the abilities of older co-workers. Oh, to be a manager today.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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