Solve Generational Conflict in the Workplace
by Lauren Stiller Rikleen*
Imagine overhearing a conversation at the workplace coffee machine between
two middle-aged Baby Boomers that sounds something like this:
"I don't know what to do about my son any more," confides the first Baby
Boomer to his colleague. "He is so confident, sociable and optimistic.
Every time he hears an inspiring speaker, he wants to go out and work on a
civic project. Then, when he's home, he's always looking for praise and
encouragement for his accomplishments." His voice trails off with a tone of
His colleague nods with understanding. "I know exactly what you mean. My
daughter is very similar. And she is always plugged in. She doesn't even
talk to her friends directly, everything is done by text and instant
messaging. Plus, her expectations at work are so unrealistic. She expects
to be trained in all aspects of her position and given constant feedback
regarding how she did in her assignments. I'm so afraid she will not
succeed in the workplace."
Another colleague who had overheard their discussion soon joined the two in
their conversation. He immediately chimed in with a litany of complaints
about his newest round of hires that he had personally recruited from the
nation's top graduate schools.
"I am pulling what little hair I have left out of my head," he lamented.
"If I am interrupted one more time by one of these kids asking me for
clarification on the assignment I gave, I don't know what I'll do. Last
week, someone with two Harvard degrees actually came in to ask me to read a
preliminary draft to make sure he was on the right track. And yesterday,
another one with a fancy Ivy League background told me he was unavailable to
work on a project this weekend."
Suddenly, he glanced at the clock. "Well, I guess we'd better head home.
It's almost midnight." With that the three departed the conversation and
left the office.
Increasingly, Baby Boomers are expressing a frustration that signals
growing generational conflict in the workplace. The complaints have a
decidedly early 1960s ring to them, sounding like Paul Lynde, the
beleaguered father in "Bye Bye Birdie" whose song became a generational
anthem, asking, "What's the Matter with Kids Today"? Ironically, Paul Lynde
was bemoaning the generation that is now leading America's businesses and
running the Government.
So is anything really the matter with kids today? Or is it their parents?
Young people now entering the workforce have been tagged with a multiplicity
of nicknames: 'Gen Y,' 'Echo Boomers,' and 'Millennials,' to name a few.
Born approximately between 1978 and the early 1990s, the Millennials are the
most diverse generation in US history and the largest since the infamous
Baby Boomers exploded into America's conscientiousness. Millennials
overshadow their immediate predecessors, Gen X, because there are nearly
three times as many members of the millennial generation. They also, in
general, are born of working parents and have more disposable income than
Unlike their rebellious Boomer parents, Millennials tend to have stronger
relationships with their parents through their teenage years. They are also
used to being regularly praised and rewarded for their efforts at school and
at play. They have been called the "Everybody Gets a Trophy" generation
because of their parents' insistence that their early sports experiences be
collaborative and positive opportunities. From these early days of shared
rewards, constant media stimulation, and technological savvy, they became a
generation accustomed to quick answers, a constant flow of information and
new ideas, and immediate gratification.
These are the characteristics that the Millennials bring into a workplace
dominated by the Baby Boomer generation, whose own youthful experiences were
markedly different. Teen-age Boomers demanded change through rebellion and
revolutionary tactics. Their early years were permeated by street protests
and standing up against an unpopular war and a military draft which
threatened all income levels. Their friends were killed, their heroes were
assassinated, the political establishment seemed immune to the changing
world, and generational conflict was rampant.
For these two sizeable demographic groups to co-exist in the workplace,
they must learn to understand how their formative cultural experiences guide
their behavior and then find the common ground for a successful working
relationship. In reality, these are two generations that should have the
capacity to work extraordinarily well together. They are both smart, work
at a fast pace, and can exhibit great passion about what they do. Their
different styles and expectations are an outgrowth of their life
experiences, and the culture in which they were raised.
How then, can the Boomers and their 'Echo-Boomers' communicate better in
the workplace? First and foremost, Baby Boomers need to stop complaining
that the millennial generation is lazy and unwilling to work hard. In fact,
the Millennials enter the workplace accomplished and with high expectations.
Millennial workers, however, reject the notion of "face time" as a means of
success, and expect clear assignments, regular feedback, and reward for
their efforts. They will not stay for long if they do not understand the
big picture and the opportunities that lie ahead.
By understanding these differences, Boomers can stop focusing on the
question in Paul Lynde's lyrics: "Why can't they be like we were - perfect
in every way." Rather, Boomers can partner with the Millennials to create a
far more humane work environment.
Savvy Baby Boomers should recognize that the expectations of the
Millennials actually translate into the fundamentals of a better workplace.
An organization that carefully trains all of its employees, sets clear goals
and expectations, and provides regular feedback to ensure that individuals
learn with each assignment is a model for success. Even more, if the
workplace can recognize the strains on two-career parents by providing a
flexible work environment, then it is going to be a magnet for the best and
the brightest of the millennial generation.
The reality is Boomers have much to learn from their younger workers. A
generation whose defining characteristics include a willingness to
collaborate and a focus on teamwork are qualities to be treasured.
What's the matter with kids today? To paraphrase a famous line from a
member of the generation which preceded the Baby Boomers: "Frankly, my
About the author:
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the Executive Director of the Bowditch Institute
for Women's Success and works with law firms and business organizations to
improve the retention and advancement of women in the workplace. She is the
author of "Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the
Law," a book about the institutional impediments to the retention and
advancement of women. An attorney and mediator, Lauren is also a senior
partner with Bowditch & Dewey, LLP. For more information, visit