Right from the start, I need to acknowledge that I am a member of the Boomer generation and come fully equipped with all of the biases present in my generation. While it is relatively easy to find a self-proclaimed expert on every corner, I have spent the last 18 years in somewhat of a laboratory setting on the subject of bridging the generational gap through my daily interactions with the Millennial generation. My views are based on my experience of working with over 2000 veterinary students during that time period, and with numerous companies to address the challenges involved with generational differences. My wife and I also raised a son and a daughter, both now in the workforce, whose ages fall near the middle of the Millennial generation. My grown children are a constant source of insight into what comes naturally for them and what frustrates them about a lack of understanding between the generations.
The acknowledgement of a difference separating the generations is not a new development. In 1969, Gallup reported that 74% believed a generational gap existed. A recent study reported a belief that this has risen to 79%. However, few view the current gap as a source of true conflict, with the vast majority describing it as a difference in outlook and attitude. Millennials largely get along with each other and strive to get along with others across generations.
The existing generation gap in the workforce is frustrating employees of all ages. More than 60% of employees say they are experiencing tension with employees from different generations, and 70% of older employees are dismissive of younger colleagues’ abilities, while 50% of the Millennials are equally dismissive of their older coworkers.
It is my belief that the rules of the game are changing. This is not necessarily a case of what is right or wrong; it is about what is occurring in the workplace. The need for developing a better understanding of the generations is not unidirectional. The current on this does not flow strictly from the top down, from the experienced to the new hires, from the Boomers to the Millennials. It is equally important that the Millennials make an effort to better understand the older generations and how they are being perceived by older generations.
The Millennial generation represents the largest to ever enter the workforce. While the exact age categories for each generation vary somewhat, the Boomer generation is defined as comprising 79 million aged 49 to 67. Generation X has 38 million aged 37 to 48, and the Millennials are 82 million strong, aged 18 to 36. The average Boomer will retire within the next 7 years, resulting in the Millennials becoming 50% of the workforce and remaining so for the next 25 years.
Delaying the need to more effectively manage generational expectations will prove detrimental to all. A pending knowledge drain is going to take place in many businesses. Organizations that wait to ensure the transfer of knowledge is taking place will watch much of it walk out the door in the form of retirements.
The good news for businesses is that Millennials do place value in being able to work with senior staff and company leaders. A recent study revealed that 87% of Millennials completely or mostly trust their supervisor. This level of trust depends on Millennials believing the older individual is competent, ethical, and authentic.
Millennials are two to three times more likely to job hop, so the turnover problem with this generation is magnified. Values must be in alignment and relationships must be forged for this challenge to be successfully addressed.
Managers need to be aware of what Millennials value and help link the things they are about to the mission of the company. Managers also need to help Millenials develop business acumen, understand their role in the big picture of the company’s mission, improve their ability to initiate upward relationships, enable them to better know where to place their focus, and enhance their contributions to the organization, as well as providing them with incentives they value, not necessarily those you value.
Questions for Boomers and Generation X: are you willing to adapt? Even though the generation ahead of you did not? Even though your supervisors did not reach out to you, are you willing to reach out to this next generation and get to know the Millennials? My guess is you will like them. I am energized through my daily interactions with this generation. The generation gap will narrow if those farther along the maturity journey adapt first. Millennials need to follow suit, but those with the most maturity have the most to lose if unsuccessful in growing these relationships.
What seems natural to individuals in any given generation is anything but that for members of the other workplace generations. The key is how can one incorporate what comes naturally for each generation into their business, which requires developing relationships and managing generational expectations. Knowing and understanding what makes us different is the secret to determining strategies and actions that can transform the workplace.
Lawrence D. Firkins, DVM, MS, MBA
University of Illinois