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Boomers and Gen Y: Bridging the Generation Gap

Posted by Aaron Green  March 16, 2009 12:00 PM

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On opposite ends of the generation timeline in today’s workforce, Generation Y, or the Millennials, (those born after 1980) and the Baby Boomers (born before 1965) each have different approaches to their work. Both groups are influenced by their age, their experience and background, their peers, and their generation’s values.

While it would be too sweeping a generalization to tell you that all Boomers make the best managers or that everyone in Gen Y excels at working with new technology, it is important for HR managers to understand the differences in workers of these two very different generations, how to manage those differences in the workplace, and how they can best work together toward common goals.

How is Each Generation Different?
As a result of their upbringing as well as their reaction to major social, economic and cultural events in their lifetime, each generation has formed values, behaviors and expectations that set it apart from the other generations.

In the workplace, it’s typical to find that:

Many Baby Boomers tend to be workaholics. They are efficient, value personal fulfillment, desire quality and question authority. Their leadership style is consensual and collegial. They are team players, communicate best in person and love to have meetings. They prefer monetary rewards and recognized titles.

Generation Y is a multitasking, tenacious, entrepreneurial, tolerant and goal-oriented population. They see work as both a means to an end and a fulfilling part of their life. They communicate best through email and voice mail, but expect constant performance feedback and are always seeking work that is meaningful. They also value work/life balance.

Managing Generational Differences Effectively
Being aware of these generational differences helps HR managers in their daily recruiting, managing, and retention efforts.

Understanding generational differences is the key to avoiding workplace wars. Some of the most common generational conflicts arise because of different approaches to using technology, adhering to set work schedules, expectations about how often feedback on performance occurs and what type of rewards are offered, as well as general work style issues, such as multitasking, blending work with personal time and dress code. For example, an older worker who passes by a cubicle where a web video is playing, several email clients are open and there is a continuous exchange of IMs, may think the Gen Y employee is goofing off or not focusing, while the employee considers it multitasking. And a younger worker may not understand why being five or ten minutes late is a big deal to his Boomer boss as long as he always gets the work done. Setting expectations around what behaviors or habits are acceptable in your office culture will make a clear standard to both groups.

Knowing what motivates your employees is also critical when it comes to retention. Younger workers are looking for more meaningful work and innovation and may be more accepting of a lateral move if it means new challenges; they also may care less about advancement than work-life balance. HR managers can contribute to job satisfaction and team cohesiveness by helping Boomers practice generational sensitivity in the way they manage younger workers. In other words, help the Boomers understand what motivates younger workers and what their expectations are.

How They Work Best Together
An independent nature is one of the trademarks of Boomers’ work style. Gen Y, who have been trained heavily on the importance of teamwork, will help to facilitate group projects with their team focused style and ability to delegate work. Finding a balance between what tasks are best to remain autonomous and which are best to be solved in a group is the key to working cross generationally with these two groups. Gen Y will pull Boomers into group projects, whereas Boomers will direct their younger counterparts about what needs to be done without group think. The result is a productive mixture of teamwork and independent projects.

There’s no argument that technology is one of the biggest areas where Boomers can learn from Gen Y. While they can be technically savvy themselves, they don’t have that knack possessed by Gen Y who grew up using computers in school from day one. The Boomers have the experience and the vision to know what needs to come out of a project, and Gen Y has the inherent talent to get it done. By combining the expertise of a Boomer with the technical savvy of a Millennial, many projects can be aided by adding a technical component that might have otherwise been overlooked.

On the flip side of the technology element, Gen Y will often be too quick to use technology when a more personal approach is more effective. With texting and email at their fingertips, Generation Y will often electronically communicate, whereas the Boomers know when a situation requires a phone call or face time. Through the advisement of their Boomer workmates, the younger generation will think twice about emailing or texting that bad news and instead pick up the phone or initiate a face to face meeting. This applies to both internal communications as well as those with clients or customers; Boomers have experience when it comes to determining what mode of communication is best.

Despite their differences, the Boomers and the Millennials share many traits, including a passion for what they do, a fast pace of work and a goal-driven mentality. When you recognize their differences and appreciate their similarities, you are better equipped to promote a vision that everyone can relate to, regardless of age group. By helping your Boomer and Millennial employees understand how they can best work together, you promote peace in the workplace, foster teamwork, and benefit from a more effective workforce.

Aaron Green is founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group [] and PSG Offshore Resources []. He is also a member of the board of directors of the American Staffing Association. He can be reached at or (617) 250-1000.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.