Rikleen Institute LLC

The Ultimate Legacy Challenge for Boomers

April 16, 2014

This blog post originally appeared in the Boston College Sloan Center on Aging and Work Blog. To view the full blog post, click here.

Millennials are entering the workplace with a variety of negative stereotypes attached to their generation. “They are entitled.” They don’t want to work hard.” “They are disloyal.” “They require constant praise.” And on it goes.

That narrative—as inaccurate as it may be—makes it easy for Boomers to disengage. Such a choice, however, would be a lost opportunity for all generations in the workplace.

There are many reasons why Boomers should actively participate in the career development of Millennial employees. The following offers five of the more compelling:

Simple demographics should encourage Boomers to focus on the leadership development of Millennials. The intervening generation—the poorly named Gen X—is simply too small to fill the gap that will be left by the giant population of Boomers. Millennials, therefore, will be stepping into leadership roles sooner than predecessor generations were called upon to do so.

Millennials are willing to work hard, but they want to work smart. Their notions of when and where work can be done are vastly different from the face-time culture that Boomers’ nurtured. Boomers often misread the Millennials’ desire to use their prodigious technology skills to make work more efficient as a challenge to Boomer authority and work practices. This reaction inhibits helpful communications about ways to develop a more efficient workplace with more engaged employees.

The “entitlement” narrative has been part of the Millennials’ reputation since they started school—and it may be the biggest misperception of all. Millennials were raised by parents who studied child development experts so their offspring could be confident and secure. But when these children grew up and entered the workplace, that carefully nurtured self-confidence is viewed as entitlement. The questions Millennials were encouraged to ask as kids are now seen as a lack of respect for senior generations at work, and the desire for success that was imbued in them in their youth is interpreted as an unwillingness to “pay dues” as young adults. It is no wonder Millennials are confused when the adults in their lives at work respond so negatively to the self-respect that their Boomer parents helped foster at home. By pushing past this stereotype, Boomers can leverage the Millennials’ natural confidence in ways that promote their development at work.

Millennials want meaningful feedback, not empty praise. They earnestly seek to learn from new assignments, and recognize that an annual review is not an effective career development tool. Boomers who take time to offer feedback as work is performed are cultivating loyal employees—and fostering retention.

At some point, legacy matters. After decades of working hard, Boomers should be thinking about their own legacy. While there may be many accomplishments in which they can take pride, the gaping hole in most workplaces is the failure to adjust the model to the life circumstances of today’s families. Work-life integration and flexibility are not luxuries, they are workplace imperatives. Millennials will complete this undone work if they must, but do they really need to wait until the Boomers relinquish power to do so?

There are more similarities than differences in the characteristics of Boomers and Millennials. As driven, hard-working generations, opportunities abound to combine their collective energies to reform the workplace. It is the work that Boomers should have done years ago. By letting go of their defensive reactions, and seeing Millennials for who they really are, Boomers can add workplace reform to the list of social changes that have been the markers of their lives.

That should be the lasting legacy of the Boomers’ impact on the workplace. After all, they raised the Millennials – now it is time for Boomers to understand them at work and create an environment that nurtures the link between Millennials’ success and organizational sustainability.