The Ongoing Demographic Challenge: Bringing Boomer Managers and Generation Y Together

Generalizations about the various cohorts in the workplace today (Traditionalists, Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y) result in stereotypical views by each cohort of the members of the other cohorts. Understanding what defines each of these cohorts and their stereotypes will help members of these cohorts learn to work together more effectively by reducing the misunderstandings and conflict that arises. Demographic research tells us approximately 40% of the management and senior level positions in our organizations are held by Boomers and that currently 50% of the employees in the workforce are Boomers, so this stereotype is fairly well developed. As the decade progresses, this dominant cohort will be replaced by the next largest cohort, Generation Y, two workplace generations behind Boomers. This creates a workplace (defined as all places where work – profit and not for profit work is done) of misunderstanding and conflict if not addressed by organizational leaders.To further clarify the ongoing demographic challenge, let’s first look at the stereotypes.The Boomer Stereotype:
I am a member of the baby boomer cohort, those born between 1947 and 1966. This means I was raised during the 1950’s and 60’s and, in general terms, I am a member of the generation whose moral and political orientation (during their formative years) was significantly affected by the birth control pill and the Vietnam War.I entered the workforce as a highly educated professional during the 1980’s. I have held many management and leadership positions during the past thirty years and I love to work. I define myself by the work I do, hence; retirement is not in my immediate future.I was born into an affluent society – an abundant, healthy economy – where post secondary education was open to all those interested. I achieved two degrees and still, to this day, I like to see these degrees highlighted on my CV. I work to live and live to work so it makes perfect sense that my work defines me, my self worth and my view of others’ self worth. I expect others to have the same work ethic as I do.My working style is competitive so I am results-focused, I like to set goals and then action plans to achieve those goals. I expect to be rewarded for goal achievement and I am career driven, seeking regular promotions. My work defines me so, of course, I am very interested in job security.When it comes to my communication skills, I am considered a digital immigrant which means I had to learn email, internet, and social media on the job, as an adult. I prefer face to face communication but I have learned the value of digital discourse and accept it as part of the ongoing business experience.As I progress toward retirement, I am interested in continuing to live a results-oriented life with results focused around my personal goals – travel, health and wellness and, spending time with my grandchildren.Today, as I continue to function as a manager and leader in the workforce, my biggest challenge is the newest entrant – Generation Y or Milennials. Within less than a decade, my cohort will have decreased in size by 50% and Generation Y will have increased by 100%. They will become the dominant cohort in the workplace, replacing my cohort as the managers and business leaders for 2020 and beyond. And herein lies the ongoing demographic challenge.

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They are not like me!The Generation Y Stereotype:
Generation Y are members of the cohort born between 1980 and 1995. This means they were raised by baby boomer parents – parents who belong to the dominant societal cohort, a cohort that likes to spend well and live well. Generation Y has a close relationship with these boomer parents and will spend a significant part of their early adult years back at home with their parents. Their generational markers are defined by technology, specifically mobile technology and social media.They, like the boomers, have been born into an affluent society – an abundant, healthy economy – where post secondary education is open to all those interested. Most have achieved at least one degree, many have achieved more. But they do not define themselves by the work they do. The line between their personal and professional lives is blurred and their self-worth comes from how they are viewed by their friends and colleagues. They are collegial by nature and believe everyone is equal. They want a workplace where hard work and career aspiration translates into rapid advancement. They are loyal to their ‘community’ and they view work as part of the life continuum.If Boomers are digital immigrants then Generation Y are digital natives. These ‘sidewalk zombies’ (those who multitask by walking and texting at the same time unaware of what is going on around them on the street) have been raised with technology and, at a young age, had access to cellular technology. By the time they entered the workforce, they had graduated to smartphone technology – at home and at work. Their community is one of friends, many of whom they have never met. They need to be connected during all waking moments via social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.Within less than a decade, this cohort will double and they will become the dominant cohort in the workplace. They will overshadow the working preferences, desires and needs of Generation X – the cohort sandwiched between Boomers and Generation Y and, unfortunately for them, a cohort half the size of both the Boomer and Generation Y cohorts – and herein lies the ongoing demographic challenge for Generation Y.I am not like them!If we look closely at these two cohorts, there are actually more similarities than differences. Although the generational markers (formative events during the teen and early adult years that members of a cohort share) are significantly different, both were raised in an affluent society. Both cohorts are self-indulgent, independent and self-reliant. Both are highly educated and believe in hard work. Both expect access to the career ladder and expect their skills and knowledge to be recognized and their contribution rewarded. So if they are really not that different, why does the demographic challenge exist?Because perception is reality. Boomers perceive Generation Y as demanding with unrealistic expectations about their role in the workplace. Boomers respect authority and value the hierarchical nature of most organizations – work hard, do your time, get results and you will be rewarded with promotion. Generation Y questions authority and wants to make their own choices – get an education, excel at technology, expect more from your employer, work hard and you will be rewarded with promotion at a fast pace. Generation Y’s perception of Boomers is one of a financially driven group- both as employees and consumers. They view Boomer managers as authoritarian and not open to change. Boomers question Generation Y’s penchant to spend working time on social media sites and expecting to be able to bring their personal smartphones to work and use them for both work and personal applications. As Boomers stay in the workforce and delay retirement, Generation Y feels potential jobs and promotions are denied to them.So what can we do to address these perceptions and bring Boomer Managers and Generation Y employees closer together – to get both cohorts focused on working together for professional and personal performance growth? Here are three steps that members of both cohorts can apply – leveraging the similarities and reducing the effect of their differences. Educate yourself to minimize erroneous perceptions and develop an appreciation for members of the other cohort. Boomer managers need to invest time and effort to fully understand the preferences and working styles of Generation Y. This will provide them with important information when seeking to create an environment where current employees are retained and future employees are recruited. Boomers should take this opportunity to learn about the differences, how to work with them, how to incorporate them into their role as leaders. The Boomer ‘leadership’ philosophy, if based in change management concepts,will set the stage and provide the tools they need to develop future leaders and keep expertise within the organization.Generation Y employees or recruitment candidates should invest time and effort in not only raising their awareness of the organization but also, awareness of those who lead and manage the organization. Developing an awareness for the skills, knowledge and experience acquired by Boomers over their many years of service, will provide Generation Y with the information they need to determine who, in the organization, is best positioned to help them learn and grow. Generation Y are interested in organizations that encourage growth and development of their employees, so they should be seeking out those types of organizations and determining how best to mine the expertise of the Boomer managers in those organizations.
Get to Know One Another – it’s all about building relationships. Boomers are considered to be the ultimate networkers. They have developed a considerable network of professional and personal contacts both within the profit and not for profit sectors. They favour face to face interaction and communication and through this vehicle they have learned how to build lasting relationships, understanding the value of relationships to grow the customer base and grow the business. Surely they could apply this knowledge and expertise to building relationships with members of Generation Y. Generation Y may be new to the concept of networking, as implemented by Boomers, but they certainly know how to network online and build a community of like-minded people. The line between their personal and professional communities are blurred so they don’t tend to differentiate between who is in their specific community. They are also pack-oriented, preferring to play and work within a team or group. So relationships, to them, are also key. The difference may only be in the manner in which they build these relationships. By getting to know one another and how they like to work, most likely these two cohorts will find they are both good at building relationships and share their best practices.
Build a Mentoring Partnership – what are your skills and knowledge you can share with another? Mentoring is an investment of time and effort but it is also best when both parties have something substantial in common such as an interest in a particular skill, position or knowledge area. The key to an effective mentor relationship is that both parties need to be getting something out of the relationship. Reverse mentoring or social-techno mentoring – where Boomers are mentored in the technological skills and knowledge held by Generation Y and Generation Y are mentored in management and leadership skills and knowledge held by Boomers – will take both cohorts a long way to building the relationships necessary to destroy the stereotypes.

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To best understand our current workplace environment and predict future trends, it is necessary to ‘lump’ members of generations into groups defined by their generational markers. We can not look, as leaders, researchers, evaluators of trends, or predictors of the future, only at individuals. We have to generalize and these generalizations can lead to stereotyping groups of people. If the generational cohorts in the workplace take the time and effort to get to know one another, their skills, knowledge and expertise, and be open to sharing their ideas with other cohorts, then the ongoing demographic challenge between Boomers and Generation Y should turn into an ongoing opportunity to build productive relationships.