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Millennials (people born just before the turn of the millennium) and Baby Boomers (people born in the years after World War II) have become famous for our well-documented disagreements on how things ought to be in work, education, media, politics, and who knows what else. In fact, it’s turned into something of a meme among both groups to poke fun at the other generation’s supposedly flawed perspective.

What makes us so different, though? It all comes down to roots. What was the world like when we grew up? How did it change? This post will examine a few underlying qualities of each generation that I feel I’ve observed among many people I have worked alongside.

Optimism and Skepticism

Baby Boomers grew up in a time of relative affluence in American history. The country’s economy improved dramatically during World War II, and it only continued growing during the 1950s and well into the 60s. In 1976, the average cost for undergraduate tuition, room, and board was $2,275 per year. After college, in the 80s, women’s participation in the labor force was higher than it had ever been, breaching the 50% mark for the first time. The future looked bright.

Millennials tend to have a less sunny outlook on life. The 1990s saw the Gulf War, the impeachment trial of the U.S. president, and then during their childhoods in the early 2000s, American life was changed forever with the September 11 attacks and the beginning of the War on Terror. By the time this generation was old enough to go to college, it had long ceased to be affordable, making the future – of their lives and the world overall – seem increasingly unsure.

When millennials are accused of being “entitled,” it’s often mentioned in relation to their supposed desire to advance inordinately quickly in their careers. Baby boomers find this behavior frustrating because they feel that people should spend years working their way up the ladder, as they themselves were able to do. It’s important for millennials to understand that their approach to work as something that can be easily changed if it’s dissatisfactory is relatively new and not completely comfortable for everyone. Similarly, baby boomers need to see how things are from millennials’ perception: with the 2008 recession and ever more expensive degrees, the professional world has long appeared volatile and unforgiving, and it seems necessary to always look out for the best possible opportunity.

Structure and Flexibility

Millennials’ penchant for frequent change in work has also prompted a greater desire for flexibility from employers. Work-life balance is more important to millennials, and they believe that in most situations, it should be the former accommodating the latter. For example, Millennials appreciate the ability to work from home or determine their own schedules. Having grown up during highly unfavorable economic times, they watched their boomer parents take on extra hours or even another job to support the family and lose out on personal interests. Millennials, with their uncertainty about the future, want to make the most of life in the here and now.

It’s true that baby boomers are generally more willing to work longer and harder than millennials. What motivates them in a workplace isn’t maximum flexibility; instead, boomers thrive on being presented with challenges and being able to meet them. They’re less likely to see supernumerary work as a threat to the sanctity of their private time and more as another opportunity to prove their reliability and loyalty to the company.

Many baby boomers strive to be seen as the ideal employee partially because they consider work to be the main part of their lives, whereas it’s usually seen as secondary by millennials. Baby boomers take pride in giving work the No. 1 spot in their priorities, yet this is something millennials virtually never do, as they tend to rank relationships first. Each generation sees the other’s position as totally perplexing.

Hierarchy and Openness

Much as they enjoy flexibility in how they work, millennials feel that the workplace itself should have a certain level of elasticity, too. Formal hierarchies are of little interest to millennials, which can lead to the perception that they’re lacking in discipline or respect. It’s key to remember that this generation was brought up to believe that teamwork and collaboration are paramount, and they expect to see this reflected in the professional world.

For baby boomers, hierarchy appears less as a hindrance to cooperation and more as a roadmap to be followed. The presence of different levels of influence in a workplace take on a motivational role because it represents the potential future of one’s career; that is, you could someday succeed your boss, then his boss, then her boss – perhaps all the way to CEO.

Baby boomers were raised in an era where some people worked for a single employer throughout their entire lives, making the proposition of eventually getting to the top not so far-fetched. But to millennials, that idea holds little appeal: they have no issues with leaving a company if they’re unhappy, and they’re more interested in learning new skills than being awarded a corner office.

What’s the solution?

Clearly, millennials and baby boomers are two groups that are prone to disagree on the job. So, what’s the best way for them to work together? The answer is mutual understanding. Millennials are never going to be boomers, and boomers are never going to be millennials, but a willingness to listen and compromise with one another can make the workplace a much better space for everyone there.


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