The New Generation Gap: Millennials Managing Older Workers

Workers from so-called “Generation Y”, people born between 1980 and 2000, now form the largest group in the American workplace.  While many of these workers, often referred to as “Millennials”, begin with entry-level positions, some of them find themselves supervising the activities of colleagues who are old enough to be their parents or grandparents—a situation that often creates tension and confusion on both sides of the relationship.  Walker collected and compiled responses from hundreds of readers of “The Workologist”, a column that regularly appeared in The New York Times, in an effort to get a “real world” picture of how older workers can get along with younger supervisors.  Walker reported that several readers who were over 50 had contacted him to share stories of their job interviews with younger hiring managers and tell him that they often felt baffled about the process and the real reasons behind their failure to land a position.  Noting that the overwhelming majority of respondents who revealed their ages were 50 or older, Walker observed the following common themes and suggestions emerged: 

  • Experience, measured by years of services, should certainly be respected; however, older workers should acknowledge and accept that their younger supervisors have competencies in areas that are relevant to current operation of the business.  Both parties should be willing and able to share information that can enhance the way that the recipient sees and performs his or her job.
  • Following on the points mentioned above, older workers should be open to learning from their younger supervisors and should carefully listen to the supervisor’s expectations regarding the outcome of the older worker’s activities.
  • Older workers should exercise caution and restraint when giving “advice” to younger supervisors and do so only when it is solicited or the project has reached a juncture where it is clear that input from everyone involved is needed in order to determine that best way to proceed.  Once the advice is given the older worker should let the supervisor decide what to do with it—if the advice is not taken the older worker should simply move on and not press the issue.
  • Older workers should always demonstrate to their supervisors, regardless of their age, that they understand and appreciate the authority formally vested in the supervisor’s position by the organization.  A younger supervisor, although confident about his or her skills and abilities, may be threatened by real or imagined career aspirations of older subordinates and it is important for the supervisor to feel that he or she will be supported by everyone on the team.
  • Older workers should package the skills and talents they have accumulated over their careers as valuable assets that are available right now to be used to pursue and achieve the future goals of the organization.  Older workers should make it clear they are not there to replay the past but to energetically participate in new activities that require the collaboration of people of all ages with different aptitudes and world views.
  • In almost every industry and context the common thread of change over the years has been the development and implementation of new technologies and technology is one of the greatest potential hurdles to collaboration across generations.  Younger supervisors should have some patience with older workers and organizations should be sure to offer appropriate training to all new workers, regardless of age or experience; however, older workers must demonstrate that they have been working on learning and using new technologies and should not be dismissive of social media and other communications tools that are here to stay.
  • Younger supervisors should not forget that the ability of the organization to attract and retain qualified older workers can enhance the brand of the organization among a very large and relatively wealthy demographic group.  While “startups” often begin with a push toward relatively young market niches, more and often than not they will eventually want to expand and offer some form of their product or service to older consumers (or companies owned and managed by “baby boomers” or “Gen Xer’s”).

There has been no shortage of additional advice for Millennial managers of how to be more effective in overseeing their baby boomer subordinates.  Moats Kennedy recommended that Millennials make a special effort to seek input from baby boomers on how things should be done and should plan for more face-to-face meetings with baby boomers than they might normally be accustomed to given that Millennials have been brought up relying more heavily on e-communications via e-mail and social media.  Tennant reported on advice from McDaniel regarding tips for younger professional managers that included similar encouragement to Millennials to proactively seek advice from older workers, preferably in person, and involve them in decision making and praise them publicly for providing ideas that prove to be valuable.

Ladimeji drew from experiences in assisting companies with recruiting younger workers who often ended up overseeing older workers to provide some guidelines that Millennials might follow in order to effectively manage Baby Boomers.  For example, while a lot has been said and written about extreme differences between Millennials and Baby Boomers, younger managers should understand that research has shown that there are actually a number of similarities as to what workers want and expect from the supervisors, regardless of age or experience: challenging work, good pay, opportunities for advancement and learning, fair treatment and work-life balance.  Younger managers would do well to stick to these basics when establishing and maintaining relationships with their older subordinates.

In addition, while recognizing that there are similarities across generations, younger managers should also be aware that treating all workers the same will not achieve the desired results.  In fact, research has shown that Millennials, workers from Generation X and Baby Boomers have very different ideas and preferences in key areas that are fundamental elements of management style: work ethic and values, communications, motivational cues, feedback and rewards, collaborative style and leadership style.  Millennial managers, or managers of any age for that matter, need to be willing and able to adjust their management styles to fit the outlook and expectations of specific workers.  Specific illustrations offered by Ladimeji included the following:

  • While Millennials are generally more attuned to e-communications through e-mail and social media, younger managers may need to plan to spend time in face-to-face meetings with Baby Boomers and preparing more formal memos which older workers seem to prefer as vehicles for receiving instructions and assessments.
  • While work-life balance seems to be important and relevant to all workers, it appears to be less important to Baby Boomers as a motivational tool in comparison to the desires of younger workers.  Research shows that Baby Boomers place a higher value on hard work and productivity than other generations and Millennial managers should keep this in mind when setting schedules and designing incentives.
  • Regular feedback on performance is more important to workers from Generation X and Baby Boomers than it is to Millennials and there are also differences among generations with regard to money, status and titles.

All in all, the ingredients for effective collaboration across generations are fairly simple and timeless.  Older workers should approach the situation with an open mind, a bit of “curiosity”, energy and respect for others and younger supervisors should sincerely respect and appreciate the unique skills, experiences and competencies that older workers can bring to the tasks that need to be done in order for everyone to feel fulfilled and excited about the work they are doing together.  However, a cautionary note applies: if an age gap really appears to be too wide perhaps the best thing to do is for everyone to move on.  Of course, egregious cases may raise questions of legal liability for age discrimination; however, litigating the issues can be difficult and sap energy and time from all of the combatants.

Sources: R. Walker, “Getting Along With a Younger Boss”, The New York Times (August 9, 2015), BU1; M. Moats Kennedy, “Millennial Managers: Tips for Managing Boomers”, Moats Kennedy Inc. (July 30, 2012); D. Tennant, “Tips for Millennials on Overcoming the Awkwardness of Managing Baby Boomers”, IT Business Edge (June 6, 2013) (citing A. McDaniel, The Young Professional’s Guide to Managing: Building, Guiding and Motivating Your Team to Achieve Awesome Results (Pompton Plains, NJ: Career Press, Inc., 2013)); and K. Ladimeji, “Can a Millennial Manage a Baby Boomer?”, Recruiter.com (April 24, 2014), https://www.recruiter.com/i/can-a-millennial-manage-a-baby-boomer/ [accessed August 15, 2015].

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