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Boomers vs. Millennials – An Opportunity to Blend two Divergent Generations

Executive Summary

The “ok boomer” meme flickered across TikTok and spread like a wildfire across the Internet in November 2019.

  • Although the meme is relatively new, the friction among millennials and Gen Z has been rearing its ugly head for a while.
  • In the workplace, using the phrase can bring up interesting consequences for the offender, which HR expert Paul Falcone says should encourage managers to address the meme sooner rather than later.
  • A conversation around millennials vs. boomers in the workplace must start by explaining the matter at hand, progress by creating a platform for open and honest discussion, and end with a call for employees to generate their own ideas for how the two cohorts can collaborate effectively.

In case you haven’t heard, the “OK, Boomer” meme made its way across the Internet this fall and became a catch-all putdown by younger workers of their older counterparts. And the older generation of Baby Boomers concocted its own creative response— “OK, Millennials”—to inspire what the New York Times called “the end of friendly generational relations.” That’s probably a bit too much drama and too much of an exaggeration for most peoples’ tastes, but it’s a topic worth addressing in light of the four generations in America’s workplace today.  

Baby Boomers and Millennials (AKA “Gen-Y”) have one critical demographic connection in common—they’re both the largest generations in size and influence in U.S. history. Boomers (born 1945 – 1964) represent the first American generation to reach 77 million, only to be topped by the Gen-Y Millennials (born 1980 – 1996) at 90 million. These two massive generational cohorts witnessed the greatest expansion of U.S. and, indeed, global growth in the history of economics and technology, from network television to cable to the Internet, from broadcasting to narrow-casting to mono-casting. Now we just have to figure out how to get them to play nicely with one another in the workplace.  

Millennials vs. Boomers in the Workplace

As of 2015, one in every three employees in the U.S. became a Millennial, and by 2025 they’ll make up 75% of the global workforce. Different from their Boomer counterparts, Millennials perceive a lack of job security as normal, they generally believe that businesses should focus on societal good and contribute to the environment, and they feel empowered by the information at their fingertips and the generous emotional support of their parents.

The rub? Baby Boomers have interpreted the younger generation’s sense of empowerment as a form of entitlement. They believe their younger cohorts are overly sensitive and dismissive of their outdated ideas and their lack of understanding of digital and social media, and they sense some sort of blame for leaving a legacy of polarized politics, environmental calamity, and social and economic anxiety. In comparison, Millennials feel that “Ok, Boomer” is a valid response to an older generation that is dismissive of their progressive ideas, resentful of the valid complaints they share, and out-of-touch with today’s realities.

With such an eclectic mix of generations, worldviews, and experiences, how can you as an employer hope to create harmony and alignment in the workplace—especially when younger boomers (now in their 50s) may be reporting to older Millennials (now in their 30s and 40s)? Simple—by making time to discuss this with your team.

Good Managers Start Conversations

As a society, we’ve lost the art of sitting around the campfire, passing around the peace pipe, and permitting elders to pass on their wisdom to up-and-coming generations. Now is the time to begin the conversation, and it can sound like this:

“Team, many of you have probably read about the ‘Ok, Boomer” meme making it its way across the Internet. For those of you who haven’t, it basically stands for a younger generational feeling that older workers don’t understand them and put them down by dismissing their ideas, when it’s really the older generation that’s the one that’s out of touch. You can almost consider it a digital eyeball roll similar to when someone feels like they’re being talked down to by their parents.

In truth, we all need to learn from one another. I’ve decided to a call a meeting like this today with no other agenda than to discuss ways that we learn from one another, pass wisdom and knowledge both up and down the generational chain, and find new ways of reinventing ourselves by acknowledging, addressing, and appreciating our differences.

First, I want to ask you to share what this feels like because you’re actually living through history—this is the first time that four generations are working side-by-side in the workplace. (Actually, it’s five generations if you include the Veteran generation that was born before 1945 and who are now in their 70s.) Second, I’d like your creative ideas in terms of how we can learn from one another, appreciate our different perspectives, and reenergize ourselves in terms of becoming stronger because of our differences.

Who’d like to begin in terms of what you’ve read or experienced on Boomers and Millennials working side by side, either here or elsewhere, and what these generational differences might feel like? Likewise, who’d like to share what we can learn from one another—whether Boomer, Gen-X, Millennial, or Gen-Z?”

Expect your team to come up with some creative ideas and then push them further by asking for leaders to step up and spearhead some of the initiatives. For example, you might hear about:

  • Cross-generational mentoring and coaching
  • Collaborative and rotational work assignments and projects
  • Opportunities to cross-train in the latest technologies
  • Training workshops on leadership, communication, and team-building
  • Team building events that heighten awareness of others’ backgrounds
  • Social networking tools that build relationships and enhance employee engagement

With these initial suggestions in hand, take it a step further: What social causes do you all have in common and that we as a team can work together to support? Who can help some of their less literate social media coworkers open an Instagram account? Who wants to rent The Intern with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway this weekend and share what the younger workers learned from a retiree who came back to intern at an online retailer?

Finding Complementary Assets Between Generations

In short, make it fun. Make it selfless. Celebrate and embrace your generational differences, not from a sense of toleration but as a source of strength. There’s no workplace challenge that a diverse but united team can’t master. Leverage the energy and creative enthusiasm that the newest Millennial and Gen-Z generations bring to the workplace, and permit your elders to share stories and successes of the business world and beyond. All it takes is creating an environment and opportunity where all sides can come together to find and celebrate their uniqueness. Whether you do this exercise as part of a corporate offsite program or a simple breakout meeting in the office, you’ll have demonstrated your values as a leader and made it safe for your staffers to do the same—truly an exercise of inspirational leadership, no matter what your generation.

Bring It Home

It always feels good when someone asks for your opinion because it shows that they care. As a manager dealing with two drastically different generations on your team, it’s important to get buy-in so that you can avoid coming off as out-of-touch or controlling in your response to “ok boomer” sentiments permeating your organization. After reviewing Paul’s suggestions, how will you approach the millennials and boomers working on your team or in your company? Are there ways you believe the two generations could work together to develop new ideas, insights, or products? Join the conversation in the comments at the end of this article!

Paul Falcone author of 101 Tough Conversations to have with Employees

Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is an HR executive who has held senior-level positions with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and City of Hope. A long-time contributor to HR Magazine, he is the author of many bestselling books, including 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. He lives in Los Angeles.

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