July 27, 2017

Civil War in the Workplace: Millennials Vs. Baby Boomers

By Cathy Moll, Partner and Practice Lead, Life Sciences

Employers today are the unwitting hosts of a cultural civil war: a battle that is playing out in workplaces across the world, where older traditionalists are clashing with a younger new order. Any Monday morning office meeting could be a prime example of this clash of generations. While older employees arrive fifteen minutes early to the conference room, casually trading banter about their weekends, younger workers saunter in a fashionable two minutes late clutching their phones, takeaway coffee in hand.

Management is aware that millennials believe most meetings should be conducted via Skype (if not cancelled in favor of corresponding via email or text message) so that they can multitask at their desks. And they have a point! But the challenge is for employers to engender harmony amongst an increasingly polarized workforce.

Strengths and Insecurities

Millennials, aged between 18 and 34, are now America’s largest generation. In 2015, there were an estimated 74.9 million baby boomers aged between 51 and 69 [1]; by mid-century, that number will dwindle to just over 16.5 million. In comparison, millennials now number 75.4 million, and that number is expected to peak at 81.1 million in 2036.

But while generational size is a factor, most generational conflicts seem to be based in technology. For millennials, the world is one of remote communication on mobile devices where there’s always an app or service that solves problems.

Whatever the catalysts, tensions between these generations are real and can negatively affect workplace productivity and employee happiness. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article where millennials noted how they cope with “the problem” of baby boomers at work [2]; one way to diffuse tensions, apparently, is to recognize boomers’ fear of technology and bruised self-esteem.

In contrast, the baby boomer generation sees millennials as a generation that exudes a sense of entitlement [3] and takes little accountability or even pride in their work. Boomers come from an environment where you’re expected to find ways to solve your own and others’ problems, because technology isn’t the answer to everything.

So Who’s Really the Monster?

Frank Martin, coach of the University of South Carolina’s basketball team, has harsh words to say [4] about those who criticize millennials for being entitled in comparison to baby boomers:

“You know what makes me sick to my stomach? When I hear grown people say that kids have changed. Kid’s haven’t changed… we’ve changed as adults. We demand less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about. We’re the ones that have changed. To blame kids is a cop out.”

Though boomers might not like it, studies show that millennials often have a method to what seems like their madness. For example, they are more collaborative [5] than their older coworkers despite their penchant for apps and digital communication. And boomers will eventually have to get used to the fact that millennials will soon be assuming management positions.

While technology facilitates remote digital communication, modern office spaces are eliminating divisive cubicles and building open work spaces and collaborative meeting areas. Additionally, work-life balance demands from flexible millennials are causing tension with nine-to-five traditionalists who aren’t used to pulling all nighters or working on weekends to finish a project. In other words, the workplace in 2017 is a now fully a global one that demands constant change and flexibility; boundaries are being pushed in terms of time, communication, and markets.

Setting the Example

Whether you agree with Frank Martin or subscribe to the view that millennials are a generation of entitled children, the point is that both generations need to learn work together — and start learning from each other.

From baby boomers, millennials can learn the value of one-on-one engagement and face-to-face communication, the richness of experience, and the value of real, rather than virtual, relationships; on the other hand, baby boomers can appreciate the skill and dexterity of millennials who quickly adopt new technologies and learn concepts faster than they ever could — not to mention the attitude common among millennials who desire to make the world a better place through their work.

While baby boomers rightly hold that there is an onus on the individual to have pride in what they do and how they do it, it’s up to them to make sure that they set the example.