Bridging the Gap Between Boomers and Gen Y

Make the work meaningful, stress feedback positive, and be flexible in letting people figure out how to accomplish the task

The other day I walked into a local restaurant and listened as a fiftysomething manager lashed out at a twentysomething employee. Such interactions occur far too frequently in workplaces across the country. For the two generations to work effectively with one another, they need to recognize how their different life experiences and expectations affect they way they communicate. As a business owner, it's your job to create an environment where this is possible. Tamara Erickson, author of a new book, Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work, and I spoke recently about common misunderstandings between boomers and Gen Yers—and ways business owners managing both groups can resolve them.

Ways to motivate. According to Erickson, the two generations speak different languages because their views of the world (and business) were shaped at different periods in history. "Boomers are by nature very competitive because most are reared in a zero-sum world," says Erickson. "For boomers, the world has always been a bit of 'you win, I lose.' Competition is deeply ingrained." Boomers work hard to get promoted and get ahead, says Erickson.

But "that's not going to work with Ys. They will not be impressed if you tell them 'work hard and you can be a supervisor.' It won't be attractive in any way, shape, or form in most cases," says Erickson. For Ys, their major objective is to learn while doing meaningful, challenging work.

Ways to deliver feedback. According to Erickson, feedback about employee performance is one typical area of misunderstanding. Consider this example: A Gen Y employee receives her first formal review from her boomer boss. The boomer focuses on how the employee ranks against her peers and what she can do to get ahead. The Gen Yer finds that disappointing. She asks herself why there wasn't more emphasis on acknowledging what she has already accomplished.

For a more effective discussion, Erickson recommends the boomer boss tell the employee what he liked about her work and offer specific suggestions that would help her learn new skills.

Ways to assign tasks. In another scenario, imagine a Gen Yer is presenting a proposal for a new ad campaign. He might suggest to his boomer boss that they poll everyone on the team immediately for a launch in a couple of days. The typical boomer says something along these lines: "Slow down. We need to schedule meetings with all the relevant people and it might take weeks to match everyone's calendar."

This conversation would leave the Gen Y employee disappointed because he believes physical meetings are inefficient in a world where information is exchanged in real time on social networking sites. According to Erickson, boomers might see this as evidence of impatience. But it's actually the opposite. The Gen Y employee is looking to involve others and challenge himself.

Erickson's advice: "Don't specify that the task has to be done in exactly [one] way. Give people some flexibility to figure out what might be the best way to accomplish the task. Make the goal and objective clear but bring them into the process of identifying the best way to get the task done. You might be pleasantly surprised at the new and innovative way of accomplishing the project."

By understanding what motivates both boomers and Generation Y, you can improve your workplace environment. As communication between generations becomes more effective, your employees will thank you.

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