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The Boomers & The Xers

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

Generational Perspectives

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: 

Xers can: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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?") 
  4. Choose face-to-face conversation when possible. Sometimes e-mail and voicemail are too impersonal for Boomers.

Boomers can: 

  1. Get to the point. Most Busters prefer a straightforward approach. 
  2. Avoid cliché and hyperbole. Busters feel Boomers give lipservice to concepts like employee involvement and empowerment – and don’t actually do what they say. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 

Generational Perspectives…


  • 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:

Generation X Managing Generation X

by Claire Raines

The ranks of supervision and management are filling with members of Generation X – born between 1960 and 1980. Depending on the industry, approximately 30% to 90% of first-line supervisors are in their twenties and thirties. And this generation comprises about 10% of general, district, and corporate management today.

In the service industries, these managers are supervising a group of employees who are mostly members of their own generation. About half of all supervisors and managers will tell you that managing their own cohorts is easy. Because they share the same history, there is empathy—and they understand what makes each other tick. Says Beth Cong, 25, Assistant Manager at the Benetton store in Palo Alto, California, "They’re still young. They listen, and they do what they’re told." The other half finds managing members of their own generation especially challenging. "They’re not like me," some say. "They’re not committed. They don’t show up on time. And they won’t listen." Even those who find managing their cohorts easy admit that most of their employees have a work ethic that differs from their own. Young supervisors and managers have typically "paid their dues" for 6 or 7 years, working long hours and weekends, to get where they are today. 

It’s a bit of a paradox. Managers say their employees are often not willing to put in the hours. At the same time, they don’t understand why they can’t be managers themselves. 
The list of what Generation X supervisors find difficult about managing employees in their late teens, twenties, and even early thirties differs very little from the list older managers cite. They say their young employees often:

  • are not reliable.
  • are not willing to work long hours.
  • think in terms of "job" – not "career."
  • have unrealistic expectations about raises and promotions.

What seems to be a non-issue for Gen X managers is the "credibility gap." You might think, since they are not much older—and, in some cases, are younger than those they supervise— they would have problems establishing authority. But this generally isn’t a problem. Generation Xers tend to consider authority a "whatever" kind of thing anyway. They don’t give their respect to others based just on titles. After all, they grew up watching authority figures (Nixon, Reverend Baker, divorcing parents) become all-too-human, complete with imperfections. Nor do Gen X supervisors expect special treatment based on titles. They fully expect to earn every ounce of respect given them.

Interviews with a number of highly successful Gen-X managers showed they have some common traits that can be helpful to all managers. Consider the following guidelines for recruiting, motivating, and retaining Generation X employees:

  • Avoid judging. When we find that others’ work ethics differ from ours, it is easy to label it "poor" or even "nonexistent." Recognize differences, but don’t judge them. Instead, look for things you have in common. 
  • Accommodate individual needs whenever possible. Beth Cong says, "I’m pretty flexible. If they need to be an hour late, that’s okay. So when I ask for favors (‘Can you come in on your day off?’), they usually help me out." 
  • Demonstrate competence. It is the quickest way to earn the respect of Gen X employees. 
  • Forgive impatience. If your people are anxious for raises and promotions, chalk it up to the energy of youth. Young people have always wanted it NOW. 
  • Be a coworker until someone requires a boss. Evan DeFoe, 28, became a manger at TGI Friday’s in Baltimore when he was 22. Since he had been buddies with his staff for 2 1/2 years, he decided to "do the power trip thing," he says. "I went out of my way to catch people making mistakes. I acted like a boss. But it was unsuccessful. People argued with me, and I made the waitresses cry. Now I’m their co-worker until they ask me to be a boss. I allow people to make their own mistakes and then fix them themselves." 
  • Celebrate. Create fun events and a stimulating environment. When people are having fun, they tend to be more themselves – and they perform better. Hold special events to celebrate the heroes on your staff. This will make you a hero in their eyes!

Generation X’s Preferred Work Environment

Xers as Managers


Gen X managers tend to:

  • be highly competent technically. 
  • have a somewhat lower "need-to-be-liked" factor than older managers.
  • bring a fresh perspective.
  • have a systems/big-picture orientation.
  • hold a strong work ethic.
  • care less about status and power than some of their older counterparts. 


Gen X managers tend to:

  • show impatience with poor performers.
  • have a hard time identifying with young employees who don’t share their work ethic.
  • be less "seasoned" in their decision-making (nothing they can do to change their age!).
  • give needy employees less attention than they require.