In the last couple of years, Millennials have passed Generation X to become the largest segment of the U.S. labor force. At 56 million strong, the Millennial contingent is only slightly larger than the 53 million Gen Xers in the workforce. Yet discussion around generational conflict in the workplace focuses mostly on the challenging relationship between Millennials and Baby Boomers, who are well back at 41 million. Why is that, and what does it mean?
While there are undeniable differences between the style and life experiences of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, the passage from one generation to the next was seen as a gradual one. From the start, Millennials have been viewed as another species. Countless books and articles promise to unravel the mystery of what makes Millennials tick. A research firm that tracks the consulting market finds that U.S. companies spend nearly $70 million a year on generational consulting—much of that on self-proclaimed “Millennial experts.”
A great deal of the purported culture clash between the generations is overblown. Some of it is based on stereotype. The differences that do exist between Millennials and Baby Boomers should be treated as assets and not liabilities. Smart business leaders can use generational differences to strengthen their organizations.
A power struggle?
Some of the perceived generational conflicts comes from real demographics. Millennials are already the largest segment of the workforce, and that dominance will only grow in the coming years. It is estimated that Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025.
On the other hand, top leadership tends to lean more toward Baby Boomers. According to a Korn Ferry analysis of America’s largest companies, the average age of a C-suite executive is 54, and the average age of CEOs are going up.
Therefore, it is understandable, that people might latch onto a narrative that the growing power of Millennials in the workplace is somehow a threat to Baby Boomers. Yet a transition of power between generations is nothing new. Anxiety over the pace of change and disruption in the post-Recession economy has led us to read more into the differences between Millennials and Baby Boomers than we should.
Distinguish style from substance
Some of the exaggerations of conflicting views come from vast differences in approach to communication and work that are more style than substance. Yes, Millennials prefer texting over phone calls and take a more informal approach to work attire. They have a relaxed attitude toward work hours and place less importance on when and where the job gets done.
Those stylistic differences hide the fact that Baby Boomers and Millennials have more in common than we might think. A George Washington University study found that stereotypes about Millennials are more often than not rooted in myth. When you dig deeper, this and another study by IBM conclude, the two generations mostly share fundamental values about work and ethics.
When generational attitudes diverge, that stems more from different life experiences than from different values. Baby Boomers came of age during a time when diligently making your way up the corporate ladder was an approach that worked and was rewarded. Millennials have come of age knowing a very different economic reality.
View generational differences as a learning opportunity
Instead of judging how Millennials approach work, we should use those differences constructively. The nature of work and career is undergoing a seismic shift, and Millennials are at the very center of that experiment. Smart Baby Boomer executives will take advantage of the Millennial lens to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate change rather than react to it.
Take the much-discussed way Millennials value flexibility in work arrangements. Rather than seeing that as a sign of entitlement, we should see it as a sign of changing times. Creating more flexibility and choice in where and when we work is more than a concession to younger workers. It is an opportunity to reinvent the way we think about work, and to create companies that are lean, agile, and adaptable.
Use mentoring as a bridge
One win-win solution to any perceived clash between Boomers and Millennials is to make a priority of encouraging mentoring relationships. Taking the time to understand what motivates each person sets them up for success. Many millennials value coaching and instruction. In a world where they can no longer count on a single employer to shape and structure their career, younger professionals are actively looking for such guidance.
Baby Boomer executives can use mentoring as an opportunity to foster a stronger workplace culture built on solid relationships and shared values. The reputation of Millennials as job-hoppers is relative and overstated. Investments in younger employees will be returned with improved engagement and outside the box thinking.
Recognizing the value both generations bring to the table is critical. Baby Boomers can benefit from Gen Xers digital proficiency and overall potential. Gen Xers can learn from Baby Boomers institutional knowledge and experience. Leveraging this diversity of thought, skillset, and experience will drive innovation. If they lean on each other and work as a team, they will get the best of both generations.
The pace of innovation and disruption will only intensify in the years ahead. The way work gets done will change, but the values underlying quality work will not. Building a strong relationship between the generations, one based on respect and dialogue, will allow organizations to navigate the winds of change while remaining rooted in lasting values.
Published on Forbes on Nov. 29, 2018.
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