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Millennials, Gen X & Boomers: Adjusting for Intergenerational Management

A few years ago, I was asked to speak to the leadership of a large national company that employs primarily newly graduated college students. The leadership was continually challenged by the seemingly unfathomable (unreasonable) needs and wants of their millennial teams. At the time I had not done much study on the subject, but was intrigued by the topic. After doing a literature search I was frankly quite discouraged by the negative attitude toward millennials that appeared to be pervasive in most literature.

My own experience in working with this generation has been positive and led to a profound hope for a better future. So I began looking into the core of the problem and became convinced that the generations communicate in such vastly different ways that it is difficult for it to be effective.

Book cover of Gen Y Now, by Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek
Gen Y Now by Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek

Millennials are dramatically different from previous generations, particularly so from baby boomers. The generations have different historical experiences, different family experiences, and are changing the economy with completely different approaches to nearly everything. Work, leisure, family, community, politics and even religion all look different to them.

Boomers hold the majority of leadership positions in nearly all organizations (though they are retiring rapidly). There appears to have been a reluctance to adjust their leadership and communication tendencies to better work with millennials. After all, shouldn’t the millennials adjust to them?

There are lots of books and seminars about tweaking how boomers manage. The problem is that tweaking is not enough; tweaking presumes a common language.

With the rate of change going on in our society and in our economy, tweaking just leaves you farther behind. I’m convinced that for organizations to be effective and move successfully into the future they need to do a radical change, question how they do everything, and be open to a completely new set of norms.  A book I like on this subject is: Gen Y Now by Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek.

Cover of So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Millennials are in fact willing to adjust to the expectations in a wide variety of professional settings, but they expect to understand why. Their expectations are high and they are determined to understand the path to achievement. Today’s path is very different than that of their parents. I often suggest our students and recent alumni read: So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport.

It’s been gratifying to see the discourse around the millennial generation turn more positive. Their creativity, productivity and lack of unnecessary rigidity are more often now seen as a valued resource. Organizations and their leaders are in transition to better utilize this resource, and the results are positive. But the surprise might be that not only are the organizational results improved, but the satisfaction levels of the boomers who made the change are improved.

Jerry O'Brien.Jerry O’Brien is the director of the UW-Madison Kohl’s Center for Retailing at SoHE and the lead instructor for the Consumer Science Department’s Retail Leadership Symposium. He often speaks to organizations on intergeneration management, industry trends, and other retail and consumer topics.


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