Millennials vs. Boomers: Finding Common Ground

Note: Originally published in Marquis Messages.

Often amusing, sometimes infuriating, and only occasionally insightful, editorial pieces are constantly popping up about the cultural struggle between Baby Boomers and Millennials. While different in style or premise, they all invariably reveal one thing that’s true for both sides: most of us are terrible communicators.

“But Sarah,” you may say, “generational differences run deep. It isn’t just how we communicate with each other.” I disagree. I believe thatevery misunderstanding results from a breakdown in communication, and intergenerational discord results from misconceptions that can be addressed through articulate discourse.

The Fallacy

Pro-Millennial pieces characterize Boomers – a generation that includes my parents – as stodgy and conservative technology neophytes with astronomically low debt-to-income ratios and the belief that financial hardship is self-inflicted, who ascribe more importance to the corporate standards of seniority and industry experience than education and disruptive innovation. There is a sense that Boomers are self-serving and both out of touch with and lacking sympathy for the sociopolitical and economic desires of today’s youth.

On the flip side, Millennials – the generation with which I identify – are cast as selfish, lazy, entitled technology addicts with no respect for authority or traditional corporate structures, who expect praise for trivial contributions and an equal voice in decisions in spite of their lack of experience and relatively junior position. Boomers seem to agree that Millennials are naïve about the ways of the world and incapable of being “real” adults, thanks to coddled childhoods orchestrated by helicopter parents.

The Reality

Though each stereotype is laced with some amount of truth, these are largely fictional caricatures painted with very broad strokes. You’d be hard-pressed to find many individuals who matched either profile, because there are far more exceptions than adherents to the rule. As with any two groups, it’s easy to identify the differences between them, but it’s much more useful to recognize their commonalities.

Both Boomers and Millennials embrace opportunities to make a difference in the world – each group is passionate about and actively working toward social justice for marginalized populations and sustainable environmental practices in a way that previous generations haven’t. Millennials and Boomers alike thrive on collaboration and work well in small team structures. Both are willing to challenge authority and embrace change, but they also place value on earned experience and prefer to operate within a clear framework. They want to understand the impact of their work on those around them, and they balk at tasks or processes that remain unchanged even after efficiency and effectiveness decline.

When you highlight shared views and values, the differences fade away and the two generations start to seem more and more similar.

The Reckoning

Don’t get me wrong – I fully acknowledge that, for all their shared characteristics, Millennials and Boomers have different approaches to work and life – but it’s more important to focus on common ground. So, how do you do that?

  • Transparency – Boomers and Millennials both want to understand why decisions are made, so be open and direct in all your communications. Don’t make decisions behind closed doors – try consensus or committee, and solicit input from all levels of employees.
  • Feedback Loops – When Millennials know their voice is being heard, they are more likely to buy in to changes and developments, as will Boomers when they feel respected and valued. Listen to criticism from your employees, and address concerns in a timely fashion. Provide thoughtful feedback to each of your employees at regular intervals, rather than waiting for a formal occasion like an annual review.
  • Team Building – The best way to develop healthy communication patterns is to work toward it. Organize a retreat, bring in a coach, conduct targeted workshops – do whatever you can to facilitate effective communication, because it is the keystone of any team and essential to success.

The more opportunities you give your team to have meaningful dialogue, the less you’ll have to manage difficult generational differences and the ensuing internal struggle. If you need a fresh perspective and a little outside energy to make changes, contact us today to get started on your transformation!