I am a millennial and I work almost exclusively with baby boomers. My responsibilities require collaboration with many CEOs and CMOs – high-achieving folks who, as you may imagine, are overwhelmingly high-expectation, climbed-the-ladder Baby Boomers with a well-developed sense of workplace professionalism and appropriateness.
Members of Generation Y operate very differently than baby boomers. Basically, the worlds in which both demographics grew up are vastly different. While boomers generally evidence terrific loyalty to their employers, millennials tend to switch jobs frequently. While paycheck size is a significant (and understandable) professional motivator for many boomers, generation Y has different workplace motivations. Perhaps most notable of all, millennials are the first generation of digital natives – and real-time transparency, connectivity, and technical advances have fundamentally altered how generation Y relates to brands, their employers, and even each other. Because of these differences, there is no shortage of articles, memes, and silly videos that touch upon the frustrating differences that occasionally make it difficult for millennials and boomers to get along in the workplace.
While conceding a bit of a struggle at first, I’ve picked up some incredibly valuable lessons as a millennial whose professional success depends upon straddling both the “digital native” (and often perceptually entitled) world of generation Y and the hierarchical (and often perceptually outdated) world of baby boomers. Here are my five most valuable lessons that I’ve learned as a millennial “change agent” at work in the land of Baby Boomers:
1) The more things change, the more they stay the same
(Baby Boomer lessons are always relevant)
This may sound stupid at first. Of course baby boomers have valuable words of wisdom thanks to years (more than us, to be sure!) of workplace experience – but I mean this on a deeper level. A big part of the disconnect between millennials and baby boomers seems borne of the fact that millennials are generally boomers’ children. Due to age dynamics alone, there seems to exist a perception that either generation – whichever one you are NOT in – is out of touch with reality and/or somehow less informed.
Over client dinners, hard conversations about organizational change, and informal chats with executive leaders, I have learned to deeply understand that lessons relayed from baby boomers about their careers and even personal lives are always (always, always) relevant. In fact, they are gold and generally must be married to any “New Age” ideas in order to achieve success. Maybe this is the millennial in me (we value mentors), but if you listen to the underlying message and focus less on matters of style, you will be hard-pressed not to find a lesson or takeaway that doesn’t apply to your profession today.
An example: I’m not saying that print media is making a comeback anytime soon (a point that is still difficult to communicate during an allocation of resources conversation), but the want to be represented on credible, trusted media outlets (as print has been traditionally perceived due to its diligent review processes) is still a relevant communications objective. In today’s Digital Age, the market places similar trust in peer review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. The medium may change, but the strategy remains the same: The market places great value in testimony from trusted resources.
Instead of rolling my eyes (in my head, of course!) and thinking, “Does this person really think that an article in this print-only magazine is going to be a game-changer for the organization?” I now understand the takeaway is that the organization would benefit from a visible, credible endorsement…regardless of the communication channel. And, in turn, part of my responsibility to the organization is to demonstrate the efficacy of other platforms – web, social media, peer reviews, etc. – to achieve the organization’s objectives.
2) A little respect goes a long way
(How you say something can be more important than what you say)
I am guilty of misunderstanding this. In fact, I am so guilty of acting upon some of the more cliché characteristics of my generation that this “lesson” is one that I’m still working to perfect (even having experienced the benefits when I get it right)! My generation often walks right up to the CEO when there’s something that we’d like to communicate – and I observe this happening with millennials in nearly every organization with which I work. This “ambush” reliably seems to stun the CEO who has lived his/her professional life honoring a very specific hierarchy.
Sample size of one here, but I don’t think that we do this at all to be disrespectful. On the contrary, this seems to happen when we are trying to express a concern or truly want to be helpful. Millennials get mocked a bit because on our youth soccer teams, everyone got the MVP trophy. We are all “friends” with bosses and parents on Facebook. We operate in horizontal – not vertical – structures…and we have been raised to believe that our viewpoints matter equally.
Here’s the lesson: It’s not always what you say to the CEO, but how and when you say it that is most important. Our millennial viewpoints don’t always matter to executive leaders. Actually, this is true in life: not everyone’s viewpoints are always the most important viewpoints to anyone other than the person talking. But, if I do have something to say, I find that it has an infinitely better chance of being heard if I abide by the established workplace protocol. Bursting into the CEO’s office and word vomiting generally doesn’t do justice to the passions of our thoughts. As a millennial, it is to my net benefit to respect the way that baby boomers function. Abiding by a protocol is not compromising the integrity of our ideas – it is a smart tactic to ensure that our ideas gain the maximum traction in the eyes of leadership. When it comes to the respect that millennials crave, well, you get what you give.
3) Education is important to boomers
(Even if the market is over-saturated with advanced degrees)
I could write a whole blog post about how interesting this is to me, and I write this as someone with some level of academic pedigree. Certainly, an educated millennial seems more likely to be respected by a baby boomer than a millennial with less educational experience. However, I have experienced this preference in several over-the-top, ridiculous circumstances.
Millennials are over-educated. The market is extremely over-saturated with advanced degrees, and MBAs in particular are a dime-a-dozen insofar as this achievement is increasingly common and may not be at all indicative of one’s professional capabilities. That said, I observe many baby boomers holding millennials to very high educational standards. This lesson is more of an understanding than anything else: advanced degrees matter to this generation (which may be why the children of this generation have so dang many of them). It’s difficult: Though those with professional degrees do generally earn more, data suggest that many advanced degrees are not worth their price tag. However, though it is likely that you won’t make your money back, many baby boomers really value this “checkmark.” The rationale behind this perhaps over-valuation is simple: Boomers find a level of assurance in academic pedigree, and often rely on one’s academic credentials to defend their trust in your work or counsel. (“They have a Super-Impressive-Sounding advanced degree from Fill-in-the-Blank-Good-School University, so surely they’re qualified!”)
If you have this card, play it…but also realize that this “card” may matter less to future generations – especially if/when “degree inflation” experiences its inevitable correction.
4) Achieving organizational change is MUCH harder than you think
(Watching Boomers adjust is more helpful than watching Gen Y)
Here’s why: Millennials have a reputation for being fast-paced, preferring nontraditional workplace structures, and being connected, entrepreneurial, and nimble. I’m not saying that it’s easy for us to manage change but – let’s be honest – we’ve been in the workplace for relatively little time, so altering our professional foundations may not be quite as big of a deal as someone with decades of experience. Changing a long established, diverse culture is something very different than building a startup of like-minded millennials. When it comes to leadership skill sets, I have learned that a builder builds. A change-maker, however, must rescue everyone from a burning building, let the whole thing burn down, and then rebuild the whole thing. (Yes, I love bad metaphors.)
I’m not saying that a baby boomer CEO of an established organization is innately more…anything…than a millennial CEO of a startup. What I am saying is that the leadership challenges that these positions face are very different…and I fear that my millennial colleagues and I often approach them as if they are the same.
By far and away the most valuable and informative professional (and even personal) learning moments that I have encountered involve observing baby boomers in leadership roles during times of tremendous change. Very many are moving – and they are doing it thoughtfully. For how much I hear my generation gripe about how “slow moving” and “unwilling to adapt to change” older generations may be, I challenge anyone to observe a baby boomer with decades of wisdom leading his or her entire organization into a new era to NOT truly admit, “Okay…Geez, this is rough.” (And then – in that form of admiration that we have reserved only for such leaders as Master Splinter or Mr. Miyagi – “I hope that one day I will be able to do this…”)
Thankfully, every time in my career that I’ve grown frustrated and thought, “Why is this change so hard?!” I’ve had the opportunity to observe a boomer gnawing away at details, serving as a charismatic leader, and just downright making it happen step-by-step and piece-by-piece.
5) We are much more the same than we are different.
It frequently occurs to me – especially when I am frustrated by a seeming hesitance to adapt to new ways of thinking – that we millennials may be faced with these same challenges down the road. Right now they feel so distant and incomprehensible. “The world turns and I know that.” I hope that 30 or 40 years down the road, we still know that – and that we embrace a new generation of leaders. By then, we, too, may be similarly at our wits’ end by the young whippersnappers infiltrating the workforce that we’ve dominated for the last half a century with new methods of communication and different motivations.
Mostly, I’ve learned this: Yield. Do I think we’re a special generation? Kind of, yes. (Really – what kind of millennial would I be if I said otherwise?!) But what I’ve learned most is that boomers are, too. (Yes, those same symbolic leaders of print media and ceremonial hierarchy.) I don’t intend to preach, to lecture, or to appease. I simply intend to share my own lessons as a member of that first generation of digital natives that has (in this current moment) shaken up how we do business, how we create change, and how we pursue dreams.
I’m proud to be a member of generation Y (most of the time), but I’m proud and grateful – and even downright lucky – to be able to work so closely with so many inspiring baby boomer leaders that serve as the lighthouses for millennials. My ships (our ships?) would be directionless without them.
…Did I mention that I have a thing for bad metaphors?
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