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Xers vs. Boomers Teamwork or Trouble

Baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer-and they're on a collision course with the Generation-X kids now flooding into offices. These two very different groups can start an all-out war-or become the best team players you've ever had.

November 1, 1996
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Diversity
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Remember back in the '60s, when long-haired college kids ran around with buttons saying, "Don't trust anyone over 30," and middle managers pushing 50 responded with scornful frowns, mumbling disdain and disappointment over "today's youth"?

Well, folks, it's back, that dreaded Generation Gap—and this one looks to be a doozy. It's now those same flower kids of the '60s who are pushing 50, and a new Generation—X to be exact—is making them squirm.

No place is the clash between these two groups more evident than in Corporate America. Why? The baby boomers (typically considered as those who were born between 1946 and 1962), 76 million strong, are finally set squarely in middle age. And because of greater financial strain, a limited retirement budget and a youthful ethos, they're going to be staying in the workplace much longer than their parents did. Meanwhile, they're sharing desk space with the new kids—Generation X (born between 1963 and 1981 according to current literature)—of which there are now more than 40 million gainfully employed.

And if the friction is there today, it will only be bigger tomorrow: Each group will expand in the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, within the next decade, one out of three people in the workforce will be older than 55. And Generation X is awaiting millions more of its members to graduate from college and head to the office.

You think the '60s hosted a culture clash? Wait until you squeeze these two very different groups into adjoining cubicles day after day. How do you keep the situation from bursting into all-out war? How do you harness the best qualities of each segment while downplaying the worst? How do you aid one group without alienating the other? We've got some good news, some bad news and some suggestions.

Be flexible.
The good news first. As different as these two generations may seem on the surface, they have one common need they want their employer to meet, and you may already be supplying it: flexible work arrangements—in forms from part-time jobs and flexible work hours to job sharing and telecommuting.

Flexible work arrangements will help ensure you hold on to experienced boomers—something you need to do given today's low unemployment rate. Also, given this group's youthful orientation, many of these workers scorn retiring at the age their parents did anyway. That magic number, 65, was incarnated back at a time when life expectancy hovered around 70. And many workers today need to work past age 65. A person leaving the workforce at 65 likely has 15 to 20 years of retirement ahead—with only about a decade's worth of living expenses saved.

We [Gen X] are capable of anew kind of loyalty, which managers can easily earn by forging a new workplace bargain.

Despite the need and interest in working, many boomers may crave a little extra free time in their later years—and will go wherever they can to log hours and still have time for golf, the grandkids or developing their own businesses. Part-time work and job sharing just may be the answer for keeping this group on board.

On the part of Generation X, flexible work arrangements are even more of an imperative. Xers entered the workplace after this trend ceased to be novel: To them, it's just a smart way to work. In Bruce Tulgan's book, "Managing Generation X: How To Bring Out the Best in Young Talent" (Merritt Publishing, 1995), quote after quote from twenty-somethings relay the importance of being trusted to get the job done—whether that means working from noon to 8 p.m. (their peak-energy hours), working from home so they can have privacy, or even working while taking a stroll and mulling over a project. "Our generation is the one around which the term latch-key kids was invented," explains Tulgan, who is a member of the X Generation. "We're fiercely independent... Between goal-setting and deadlines, we want to be left alone."

For all these reasons, flexible work arrangements have gone over big—for both Xer and boomer employees—at Framingham, Massachusetts-based Consolidated Group, an employee-benefits administrator. Monica Brunaccini, director of HR, offers a description of the current workforce that reflects what most companies will look like in the next decade: "We have 600 employees, and it's a real split. We have very few people in their 40s and 50s. We have a lot of 20s and 30s and then we have this group that's in their 60s." The company is dabbling with more and more flexible arrangements, and Brunaccini says she sees all segments of the workforce showing interest. "I haven't seen the requests from one group stand out from others," she says. "It's one of those universally popular benefits."

Gear benefits communications toward needs.
Speaking of benefits (here's the bad news), this is the area in which Brunaccini also sees the biggest chasm between the two groups. Employees demand benefits that reflect their needs—that's only natural. It's just when you have see-sawing needs that you have a problem. For instance, the Consolidated employees in their 50s and 60s want more focus on retirement: bigger 401(k) contributions and more communications on saving a nest egg. The twenty-somethings present at these communication efforts yawn over retirement lectures. They don't want to fiddle with 401(k)s. "We try to get them to invest in their future and participate in a 401(k)," says Brunaccini. "And they couldn't care less."

But just as retirement talk is lost on many young employees, so too is child care of no particular interest to most older employees. And yet, to keep a happy workforce, HR must balance both. Brunaccini admits it's not easy: "From a communications standpoint, especially when it comes to benefits, it's quite a challenge because you have very different audiences."

Consolidated's solution to all this: Over-communicate rather than under-communicate. Anytime a benefit is changed, added or up for re-enrollment, HR conducts both written and verbal presentations. Brunaccini and her colleagues sit down beforehand for a preparation meeting. "We try to anticipate any question we might get—either from male or female, younger or older, new or tenured," she says. This approach ensures that benefits, and education components, don't get overly skewed to one side or another. If such communications are handled effectively—with an eye toward all workforce segments—Generation Xers may suddenly realize that 401(k)s are for them too, while older employees could use the information on dependent care in their elder-care strategy—or for their grandkids.

Chances are, by talking the right language to these two very different groups, you can make your current benefit offerings work for all. But, can you get these two groups with warring views of each other to work together? It's not as impossible as you may think.

It's a matter of diversity.
In a nutshell: Boomers see Xers as disrespectful of rules, scornful about paying dues and lacking employer loyalty. They "couldn't care less" is a phrase boomers often use to describe them. Xers, of course, have a different view of themselves—and why they act the way they do. "You have to remember that we entered the working world in the post-job-security, post-pension-security era, in the wake of downsizing" says Tulgan. "That means traditional notions of loyalty and dues paying aren't really applicable. That kind of career model isn't even available to us. That doesn't mean we're disloyal. In fact, we're capable of a new kind of loyalty, which managers can easily earn by forging a new workplace bargain based on relationships of short-term mutual benefit." .

And baby boomers also have a different self-identity than the hierarchy-worshipping, over-cautious employees Gen Xers have them pegged for. They were the kids of Depression-era parents, to whom the job—and keeping the job—meant everything. Born into post-war prosperity, they had the luck of being able to sign on with big, healthy companies and stay there for life, which, they'd learned from their parents, was a great thing. Joan Kelly, manager of the Business Partnerships Program for Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Retired People (AARP), recalls her father, a Depression survivor, urging her into teaching—because then she'd always have a job. "If you've been through the Depression, or your parents have been through the Depression, you tend to think very differently about work," she says.

These generational differences are no different than racial or gender differences, and should be treated the same—as a diversity issue. The more a company's leadership talks about the issues of older and younger people and airs them out, the less likely grudges against work styles will fester. It's a theory that Tulgan is working on now with New Haven, Connecticut-based Rainmaker Inc., a strategic think tank that consults companies on better managing their Gen-X employees. A current program revolves around two-way feedback: Rainmaker consultants enter a company and conduct focus groups with Gen Xers one day and boomers the next. "The third day, we bring them all together and say, 'Want to hear something interesting? You all agree about this stuff, but you're on totally different pages when it comes to this other stuff. And did you know what these folks thought about you? Isn't that funny?' It opens up the dialogue," Tulgan says.

Once that dialogue is open—and maintained—HR can focus on the second strategy: managing the groups' differences so they complement rather than clash with each other. It's not an unlikely scenario.

Take, for instance, the technology issue. Although older workers consistently have high marks on attitude, attendance and practical knowledge, they routinely score low on their comfort factor with technology. In an AARP study, for example, 400 companies rated older workers lowest in this category. This isn't unexpected. Baby boomers didn't grow up with computers. But Gen Xers did. So why not pair the two to create a little team spirit? Gen Xers instruct boomers about PCs, gaining some credibility among that audience for their techno know-how, while older workers gain much needed knowledge.

There are similar synergies just waiting to be created. For instance, as Tulgan highlights in his book, most twenty-somethings crave mentors. But there don't seem to be enough to go around in today's strapped business world. Conveniently, older workers have often put in years at the company. They're ideal contact people for any questions new kids may have, about the actual company, its processes or working in general. "[Older people] represent the corporate memory," says Kelly.

It's just such an informal give-and-take that Consolidated nurtures. Brunaccini says there's little conflict between the two groups, thanks to effective management and a sense of mutual respect. "I've seen that some of the older workers tend to be the younger employees' supplemental parents," she says. "Older members tend to be the ones younger people go to when they're having problems or need advice."

Just as those with diverse workforces celebrate the texture a variety of cultures and mindsets offers, so should companies with a strong mix of younger and older employees—because when properly managed, this can be a true blessing. Says Kelly: "Each group brings something to the table, and you need to value them for what they bring. The young people bring some new ideas; the older people bring their experience. I think it's a nice strong match you've got there."

Personnel Journal, November 1996, Vol. 75, No. 11, pp. 86-89.

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