by Claire Raines
For the next three decades, the Boomers and the Xers will find themselves side-by-side in the workplace—and often not with the Boomer in charge. The old order has crumbled: organizations are throwing away the hierarchy, technology is mixing things up, and the information age and service economy are pushing people into nonlinear positions. No longer are executives the oldest, mid-managers the middle-aged, and front-line workers the youngest. The Xers’ technological acuity and business savvy have put hordes of them working side-by-side with their older counterparts.
Now many Xers are managing the very Boomers who have complained so vociferously about them. In the coming years, some of those in charge will be Xers, some will be Boomers, and lots of folks from both groups will find themselves trying to work together on the same teams.
These two generations have some subtle, but critical, differences. It’s as if the air around them in their formative years was different. Where the Boomers were indulged, the Xers were overlooked; the Boomers had time to "hang out," the Xers have always been pressed for time; the Boomers saw a world of opportunity, the Xers felt forced to adopt a survivor mentality. The Boomers were the first generation to be graded on their report cards for "works with others," the Xers the first generation of latchkey children who were on their own after school and had to learn to rely on themselves.
Therefore, they see the world of work—and each other—a bit differently. Since generational differences are based primarily on assumptions and unconscious criteria, surfacing them takes a giant step towards resolving them. If these two groups are to work together successfully—and, let’s face it, they must—we need to explore these assumptions and perceptions, deepen our understanding of each other, find the commonalties, and develop better ways to communicate and work together.
What They Say About Each Other
Boomers say Xers…
- aren’t loyal
- have no work ethic
- are not committed
- are self-focused
- have no respect
Xers say Boomers…
- are too political
- don’t practice what they preach
- are workaholics
- need validation
- are self-righteous
Boomers tend to be more process-oriented, Xers more results-oriented. "The Boomers wear their values on their sleeves," says Dr. Deborah Bender of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. "They were taught they would make a difference in the world, and they are driven by the mission of their organization. To the Xers, though, very little is sacred. They just want to get the job done and get to their lives beyond work. They’ll change jobs – even industries – on the average of seven times in their careers." Dr. Bender says one of the key complaints Xers have about Boomers is their "soft" – some might call it wishy-washy – communication style. Boomers say things like, "I’d love it if you would…." and "You might want to…." Most Xers wish the Boomers would just say, "Here’s what needs to get done…" (One Nike ad says it this way: "Don’t insult our intelligence. Tell us what it is. Tell us what it does. And don’t play the national anthem while you do it.")
What can be done to bridge the gap? Here are some ideas for each group:
- Show respect for the Boomers. They’ve put in their time. They don’t want to be called "Mr." or "Mrs." or "Sir" or "Ma’am," but they do want to know you respect their experience.
- Take your time. Boomers tend to value the "people side" of business. Take the time to get to know them as human beings who care what you think of them.
- Be friendly. Call Boomers by name – and "check in" with them ("How did your son do at his soccer match?" "How was your ski trip?")
- Choose face-to-face conversation when possible. Sometimes e-mail and voicemail are too impersonal for Boomers.
- Get to the point. Most Busters prefer a straightforward approach.
- Avoid cliché and hyperbole. Busters feel Boomers give lipservice to concepts like employee involvement and empowerment – and don’t actually do what they say.
- Learn to use technological communication efficiently. Busters say Boomers play phone tag – when they could simply explain on their message what they want/need. Use e-mail when it’s appropriate – not for feedback, for example, but to pass along information.
- When delegating, sketch out the end result, but allow the Buster to figure out how to achieve the result.
Generational differences are based primarily on assumptions and unconscious criteria.
- Outlook: optimistic
- Work Ethic: driven
- View of Authority: love/hate
- Relationships: personal gratification
- Perspective: team
- Outlook: skeptical
- Work Ethic: balanced
- View of Authority: unimpressed
- Relationships: reluctant to commit
- Perspective: individual
For more on Xers and Boomers:
- read The Xers & The Boomers: From Adversaries to Allies by Claire Raines & Jim Hunt
- see Showdown at Generation
Gap, a video with Claire Raines