By Brian Goslow
A generational divide is widening as baby boomers continue working into retirement age. A preconceived notion that younger workers have a sense of entitlement is exacerbating the gap. This perception, and many others about younger workers, that includes millennials (those born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s) needs to be overturned for businesses to reach their full potential, according to Lauren Stiller Rikleen, author of You Raised Us — Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams (American Bar Association).
Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and Executive-in-Residence at the Boston College Center for Work and Family in the Carroll School of Management, frequently speaks and consults on the multi-generational workplace, women’s leadership and unconscious bias.
She wrote her book after finding audiences she spoke to would ask her questions about dealing with the younger generation — and they were usually “very negative” in tone.
“It just became increasingly clear that there is such a stereotype about millennials,” Rikleen said. “I had trouble understanding this disconnect between the people which raised this generation — their kids — not recognizing how some of those qualities (they raised them on) might play out in the workplace.”
She wanted to get past the stereotypes and myths boomers had about millennials and find out what they really meant. “Part of this issue is, are these behaviors we’re seeing and criticizing real — or what are we really seeing?” Rikleen said. “This generation is certainly branded as entitled, but are they — or, are we seeing other things that manifest through other people as entitlement?”
In her opinion, millennials are simply displaying the self-confidence their parents taught them to have. “As a generation, we, as boomer parents raising this generation, had more experts and more books at our fingertips telling us how we need to make sure our kids grew up to be self-confident. And having focused on that, our children came out self-confident.
“In the workplace, it can be off putting to other people if it’s not sufficiently tempered with modesty or humility,” Rikleen said, noting that misperception or possible misreading of a self-confident attitude can cause older workers to see them as entitled, not loyal and not committed to their job.
Meanwhile, younger workers regularly feel that their elders don’t respect what they can bring to the company.
“You do get a lot of older people frustrated by these situations where a young worker will express their thinking about how something should be done,” Rikleen said. “We get put off by that because we remember being young in the workplace and feeling we’re supposed to be much more deferential to hierarchy — but millennials weren’t necessarily raised to be deferential to hierarchy.
“In fact, they were raised that their opinions mattered, so when they have an idea that something could be done more easily in other ways than it’s currently being done, it’s very comfortable for them to explain how to improve it — and it’s very frustrating for them when those thoughts are not valued,” Rikleen said.
Millennials can also develop resentment toward their boomer coworkers if they start feeling as if they’ve got no chance for organizational advancement because boomers are staying in their positions past the traditional retirement age.
“They are definitely staying in the workplace longer and that is causing a greater sense, for younger workers, of ‘I don’t know when these leaderships positions are going to become available.’ It certainly sets up a dynamic at the workplace that can be difficult,” Rikleen said, discussing the potential implications of that recent development for both Gen X-ers (those born between 1965 and 1980) and the millennials.
“The fundamental DNA of boomers is they tend to like to work, and as they’re much healthier going into their 60s than previous generations were, they’re not anxious to look ahead at 30 years of nothing to do.”
While many boomers are technologically efficient, they’re more easily exhausted by constant changes and upgrades as new programs and ways of doing things are regularly being introduced into the workplace. On the other hand, millennials have only known a world where the technological platforms they’ve worked on — whether it’s social media, cellphones, iPads, reading tablets or the next new gadget brought onto the market — come with the expectation the next innovation is right around the corner.
“It’s just harder for boomers to be dealing with the constant case of the change,” Rikleen said. “Just as you learn one thing, there’s another thing to learn. Millennials essentially have grown up with it.” Boomers didn’t grow up with constant technological changes, so they aren’t as adaptable because it’s not second nature, said Rikleen.
As technology has allowed for a truly global world market, it has also meant to succeed, you almost feel obliged to be “wired” to work around the clock; if you’re not “working,” your mind is aware there could be an email waiting for you from an individual from another country who is just starting his or her workday.
“We are so much more connected and that makes life much more complicated,” Rikleen said. “We all have to adapt differently and we can’t turn back the clock. We have given into the demands of technology without understanding the incredible impact it has had on our health and our well being.”
Rikleen feels that the huge challenge for workplaces, going forward, will be addressing the total 24-7 accessibility the business world demands today. “That is just not a sustainable way to live,” she said.
But until that time, older workers can benefit by opening their minds to the lessons millennials can teach them about the latest technological innovations. Many workplaces are developing reverse mentoring programs where millennials are assigned to boomers and Gen X-ers to help teach them, for example, social media or new technology-based innovations.
“Somebody younger who may have a million ideas about how to do something you’ve been doing for a really long time and how to do it better, how to do it quicker and how to do it more efficiently — that may be hard to hear but we’ve got to be open to that.
“At the same time, that younger person benefits from developing a mentoring relationship with somebody more senior in the workplace,” Rikleen said. “Those are great examples of the ways we can leverage those technology skills of younger workers in a way that benefits the workplace and can help to develop stronger relationships.”
So how can boomers overcome the stereotyping of younger workers — that they’re always on their cellphone, talking to or texting their friends and seemingly not invested in their jobs?
When addressing audiences on the subject, Rikleen, a boomer herself, turns the mirror on older workers — her own generation. “The question we all need to ask ourselves about millennials: Is their use of social media or texting their friends during the day different than when we would be, back in the day, on the phone?” she noted. “You’d call somebody on the phone or there would be other ways you might not have used your time 100 percent efficiently.”
Rikleen said when she’s pointed out these conduct similarities to people, they do stop and give thought to the idea that maybe what they’re seeing is not such a terrible thing. It’s just different from the way the older worker might have done something for years — but that doesn’t make it bad or wrong.
Rikleen said she talks to millennials all the time who just have no clue or understanding that some of these issues cause such consternation with their older coworkers. “They’ll say, ‘If I take two seconds to answer a text, and it doesn’t impact my work in any way, why would people get upset about that?’ ” In some situations, that’s a fair question. In other workplaces, the behavior is not acceptable, and the older worker should explain why.
These generational differences will seem greater to someone returning to the workforce after a significant absence. If an older worker suddenly finds him or herself surrounded by a group of younger workers, Rikleen suggests they listen more and talk less until they become more comfortable hearing them out with regard to work-related issues.
“A lot of times, more senior people are quick to want to talk — ‘This is how I did it, so this is how you should do it’ — but one thing I don’t see millennials having is a lot of patience for is the way boomers do things.
“For them, there can be a sense of there’s a much faster, better way to do things than you tend to do them — and I’m here to show you,” Rikleen explained. “We (boomers) need to be open to that. We need to understand there are better ways to do things and sometimes those better ways come from someone who is much younger than we are.”
On the other side of the equation, Rikleen said there are a lot of millennials in the workplace who would be very happy to have mentoring relationships with more senior people that are based on goodwill and that are well meaning. “Be an available presence that someone can learn to trust and seek guidance from when they want to seek guidance. Or if you need to give advice, build up that trusting relationship first,” she suggested.
At the same time, she said younger people coming into the workplace need to understand that there is a wealth of wisdom and experience at their fingertips if they’re open to hearing what can be learned.
Since her book came out earlier this year, Rikleen has received calls from a variety of organizations, businesses and municipalities.
“What you’re seeing is all workplaces are grappling with this same issue of how do we make sure that we are creating a workplace in which all generations are able to succeed and thrive.”