When Baby Boomers Meet Millennials: Finding Common Ground at Work

When Baby Boomers Meet Millennials: Finding Common Ground at Work

Could two workforce generations be more different than baby boomers and millennials? As noted in The Next America, by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center, the baby-boomer generation is known mainly for its work ethic, while the millennial generation is characterized by its embracing of technology. Baby boomers work to feel safe and secure. Millennials already feel secure. Motivated by different needs, these two groups respond to completely different management styles in the workplace.

That’s why, baby boomers who try to manage millennials using the same techniques they themselves would respond to are doomed to fail. But the good news is that baby boomers who learn to adjust their management styles to respond to millennials’ unique characteristics can realize tremendous benefits from millennials’ presence in the workplace.

For example, millennials’ affinity for technology can be invaluable in helping organizations leverage technology to become more collaborative, communicative and efficient. And their desire for work that feeds their sense of belonging and self-esteem may push organizations to become more flexible and quick to adapt – both qualities which characterize successful organizations.

Success Starts With Understanding: Five Defining Features of Millennials

If you’re a baby boomer who manages millennials, it helps to first understand what they’re all about. Here are five defining features that will give you a sense of where millennials are coming from when they come to work every day.

  • Diversity: From 1980-2000 – the years that define the millennial generation – the white majority in the United States was in the midst of a rapid downward decline. As a result, millennials are more diverse racially and ethnically, and tend to be more tolerant of diversity, than older groups.
  • Education: Millennials are more educated than previous generations. Nearly 90% of those 25 and older have finished high school, and more than a third of millennials aged 25-29 have a bachelor’s degree, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
  • Connectivity: For millennials, connectivity has two meanings: being technologically connected and being connected to other people. According to The Millennials: Connecting America’s Largest Generation, a quarter of millennials say their use of technology is their defining characteristic, and 61% rank family as the most important thing in their lives.
  • Independence: While feeling connected is important to millennials, so is independence. Many millennials have no religious affiliation, and they’re also more likely than their parents and grandparents to be unmarried.
  • Safety: Millennials are less likely to be murdered, abducted by strangers or die in a traffic accident than other generations. Is it any wonder they tend to be optimistic about their future?

So How Do You Manage?

Since the millennial generation is the best educated, most tolerant and most connected in history, successful businesses must adopt management practices with these qualities in mind. Some years ago, the book New Patterns of Management broke out two management styles: emphasizing tasks and methods to accomplish them (job-centered), and emphasizing employee needs and interpersonal relationships (employee-centered). The question is, which is better for managing millennials?

Job-centered leaders focus on things like hierarchies, job descriptions and performance review. Employee-centered leaders focus on employee needs, interpersonal relationships and empowerment. Given the value millennials place on relationships, and given their confident embrace of technology, an employee-centered approach would seem to be more aligned with successfully managing them.

The book Managing the Millennials states successful millennial managers “will be the ones who understand, appreciate, and learn to work with the differences in values, work-life priorities, and expectations.” As job complexity and workforce education continue to increase, managers are challenged more than ever to adapt their approach to new roles and a new generation.

Asked to identify effective and ineffective managers of millennials, human resources professionals interviewed by the authors of Managing the Millennials described effective managers as those with the following perspectives.

  • Adaptability, in the sense of their own need to change to manage in today’s world
  • Self-efficacy or the belief that they can do something to change their situation
  • Confidence to allow subordinates to challenge them
  • Power, specifically the power of relationships (rather than the power of their position)
  • Energy or the feeling that working with millennials made them feel younger
  • Success or seeing themselves as key to millennials’ success (as opposed to seeing millennials as impediments to the managers’ own success)

The problem isn’t that there’s a new generation. Effective managers have found techniques that work with this generation. It’s just that those techniques require the managers themselves to be open to change.

Take the High Road

If you’re a manager, the facts about millennials suggest you have a choice about how you perceive them. Based on their background and education, their sense of being both connected and independent, and their boundless optimism, you can choose to think of them as overconfident and entitled – or you can choose instead to think of them as prepared and positive, and ready to make a unique difference when it comes to the success of the organization as a whole.


Millenials are 1/3 of the workforce and growing by the day.  As the most connected generation ever – in both the technological and personal sense – millennials have much to contribute in the workplace and we need to harness their energy for the greater good. It’s up to those who manage them to recognize what they have to offer. Good managers will embrace this new generation. Organizations that encourage – even insist on – good management will thrive. High-performing organizations are doing it now. The future is here. The question is – are you ready?

This article was extracted from a research paper Johnson recently completed for a graduate level course through the Harvard Extensive School. He is currently pursuing a Strategic Management Certificate from the institution.

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