Gen X Vs. Millennial: Bridging the Generational Gap in the Workplace
I’ve worked for good bosses, bad bosses, and everything in between, so I’ve become a student of behavior. In a recent role, I was assigned to a supervisor who happened to be a Millennial. It was eye-opening in many ways, as a Generation Xer, to note the differences from the Baby Boomer management style I had been “brought up on” since I entered the white-collar workforce at age 20.
As a Generation Xer, I was immersed in the Boomer management culture — but there are still Gen X-inspired differences in the way I approach the workplace as a manager and employee. I have worked successfully with many Millennial colleagues and with at least a couple of managers and recognize some interesting differences in how the generations approach management.
Among the generations in the workforce today, Millennials and Generation X cohorts bring diverse perspectives, values, and work styles to the table, often leading to fascinating dynamics in the workplace. Recognizing that in today’s modern workforce, we find ourselves in a unique situation where multiple generations coexist and collaborate, I asked a few other Gen Xers about their experiences working with Millennial bosses.
To be blunt, I learned that generations can often butt heads.
Baby Boomers: Still Hanging in There
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the (allegedly) outgoing management generation, Baby Boomers, are often characterized as hardworking and dedicated employees who value loyalty and respect for authority. As managers, they tend to have a more hierarchical and traditional management style. They appreciate clear structures and formal communication channels and may be more directive in their approach, providing specific instructions and expecting adherence to established procedures.
The Baby Boomer generation refers to individuals born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s, so their ages range from late 50s to late 70s. The retirement age and the decision to leave the workforce vary among individuals based on personal circumstances, financial considerations, and health conditions. While some Baby Boomers have already retired or are gradually transitioning out of the workforce, many others continue to work beyond the traditional retirement age for various reasons.
It is difficult to predict exactly when the Baby Boomer generation will completely move out of the workforce. However, as time passes and more individuals from this generation reach retirement age, we can expect a gradual decrease in their workforce participation. By the mid-2030s or early 2040s, it is possible that the majority of Baby Boomers will have retired or left the workforce, and I believe the transition will likely be spread out over an extended period rather than a sudden complete departure.
There are about 73 million baby boomers, and the babies of the boomers are turning 60. The oldest Boomers are approaching their 80s. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s set aside the Baby Boomers, whose workplace dominance will more or less come to an end in the next few years, leaving mostly Gen Xers and Millennials in the workplace. (Gen Z, which is anyone born from 1997 onward, is part of a new generation and I am not including it as part of the management class for this article).
Work Ethic and Values
Generation X, born between the early 1960s and early 1980s, grew up in an era of economic uncertainty and witnessed the rapid evolution of technology. As a result, they tend to be independent, resourceful, and self-reliant. They value a work-life balance, tend to be skeptical of authority, and are driven by personal fulfillment and stability.
On the other hand, Millennials, born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, were raised in a digital era characterized by constant connectivity and rapid change. They are known for their tech-savviness, desire for meaningful work, and passion for innovation. Millennials prioritize work that aligns with their values, seek flexibility, and strive for healthy work-life integration.
Effective communication is essential in any workplace and understanding the contrasting communication styles between Millennials and Generation X can foster better collaboration.
Generation X tends to prefer direct, face-to-face communication. They appreciate concise and straightforward conversations, often valuing privacy and a focused work environment. Email and phone calls are the preferred modes of communication for this generation, though the adaptable nature of Gen Xers keeps them up on most new tech.
Millennials, on the other hand, are digital natives who embrace technology-driven communication. They are comfortable with instant messaging, video conferencing, and collaboration tools. Millennials often value teamwork, feedback, and inclusive decision-making, favoring a more collaborative and open communication style.
Growing up during the technological boom, Millennials have an innate understanding of digital tools and platforms. They readily adapt to new software, social media, and mobile technologies, which enables them to navigate the digital landscape with ease. Their digital fluency often translates into finding innovative solutions and leveraging technology for increased productivity.
Generation X, while adaptable to technology, did not experience its integration to the same extent during their formative years. They have had to adapt and learn new technologies throughout their careers. Although they may not possess the same level of comfort with technology as Millennials, Generation X brings a wealth of experience and a balanced perspective to leverage technology in their work.
Millennials and Generation X exhibit distinct career aspirations influenced by their upbringing and societal factors.
Generation X, being the “latchkey kids” who grew up with working parents, value stability and financial security. They often seek advancement within an organization and are motivated by job security and a steady income. Generation X tends to be pragmatic and focused on building a solid foundation for themselves and their families.
In contrast, Millennials are driven by personal fulfillment and a desire for work that aligns with their values. They prioritize work-life balance, continuous learning opportunities, and career growth. Millennials are more likely to switch jobs and explore various career paths to find a fulfilling and purpose-driven career.
What Happens When Gen Xers Work for Millennials?
While it is important to avoid making broad generalizations about any generation, including Millennials and Gen Xers, there can be instances where certain management styles or behaviors can be perceived as ineffective or challenging. I recently spoke to several Gen Xer colleagues (who will remain anonymous) and asked their thoughts on working for a Millennial boss.
Here are a few examples of experiences Gen Xers had with Millennial bosses.
Steve (not his real name) worked in product management and development and said his manager was dismissive of his experience.
“I just felt my supervisor thought my experience was somehow not valuable, and he was constantly dismissing my ideas and comments in meetings, or behind my back. Sometimes he would ask my opinions in meetings, only to shoot me down in front of everybody — usually with a quip about how old school my thinking is. Really frustrating.”
He added that it had a cooling effect on his willingness to contribute or try to be creative. Steve started looking for another job within a year and has since landed elsewhere.
Ways to Improve
Besides being active listeners, Millennial bosses should consider that Gen Xers have experience they do not — and may feel they are being passed over or ignored. A report by MetLife found that Gen X employees are the least satisfied with their jobs — likely due to the fact that they are promoted less often than other generations, despite their hard work.
According to DDI research, Gen X business leaders were promoted significantly less for going the extra mile than Millennials and Baby Boomers. In fact, Gen X employees averaged only 1.2 promotions in five years, while millennials and baby boomers averaged 1.6 and 1.4 promotions, respectively.
Gen X employees often have a wealth of organizational knowledge that is valuable to the company. Supervisors should not take this for granted.
Martha, who worked for nearly twenty-five years in marketing before moving into a different field, had a Millennial supervisor who micromanaged all of her Gen X employees. “She was condescending, rude, and acted like she was God’s gift to marketing,” Martha said of her supervisor.
“I am a professional; I’ve won numerous awards for my work and my evaluations praised my hard work and creativity, but once my new boss came on board, forget it. I have rarely been treated so callously in my life.”
Ways to Improve
As Gen Xers generally value independence and autonomy, such micromanagement can stifle creativity, hinder productivity, and lead to a breakdown in trust between the boss and their Gen X employees. Unless you have a reason to assume an employee — of any generation — is not performing when self-directed, avoid micromanagement. It is self-defeating.
Gen Xer Walt was brought on for a brief contract as a project manager for a catalog company. It was his managerial skills and general familiarity with the sector that got him the job, but he soon found that he had to manage more than details, timelines, and vendors. He also had to manage the moods and mixed signals from his Millennial supervisor.
“I hate to sound like a cliché, but she was just a ridiculously terrible communicator. She would give cursory instructions for tasks, and if I messed something up or didn’t do it exactly right the first time, she would get pissed. I’m in my late forties, and she made me feel like I was some kind of hopeless fossil because I couldn’t interpret her cryptic instructions perfectly,” Walt said.
“She once said some unkind things to me in a staff gathering that included her boss and her boss’s boss, about something that was not even a problem. Just uncalled for. I’ve managed people throughout my career, and I have never been and never would be so erratic and tacitly insulting to a team member. I can’t begin to describe how happy I was to finish that contract.”
Ways to Improve
Effective communication is crucial in any managerial role. A Millennial boss who struggles to provide clear instructions or guidance to their Gen X team members can lead to confusion, wasted time, and frustration. Gen Xers often appreciate clear goals and expectations, so a lack of clarity can impede their ability to perform effectively. And of course, if a manager has an issue with a staff member, calling them out in a team meeting is the worst possible way to handle it.
Other examples shared involved an overemphasis on technology. More than one person cited examples of Millennial supervisors, having grown up in the digital age, tending to be more comfortable and adept with technology compared to Gen Xers. The problem that arises is when a Millennial boss assumes that all Gen Xers are technologically inept or constantly insists on using the latest tools without considering the preferences or needs of their Gen X employees. This can create unnecessary friction and hinder productivity.
Some mentioned issues with work-life balance. “My boss didn’t understand the various pieces of the project we were working on, which was due on a Friday, until the last minute and found out we had missed a bunch of stuff we needed to include. I had to work all weekend to fix it. He didn’t apologize, or offer to help,” said Shari, who worked in a publishing company. “He just shrugged, chuckled a little, and said, ‘There goes your weekend.’”
Good Experiences Do Exist
It is important to note that these examples are not representative of all Millennial bosses, nor do they imply that all Gen Xers will have negative experiences.
To offer a counter view, one Gen Xer, Valerie, experienced a Millennial boss who valued her experience and insights. She often was asked for her opinion about how to approach projects and how best to work with others across the company, since Valerie had worked at the company for many years longer than the manager.
The manager collaborated with Valerie and drew upon her strengths, recognizing that Valerie had expertise that varied from the manager’s. As a result, Valerie was a more engaged employee who felt valued and enthusiastically contributed to achieving the team’s goals.
All Managers Need Training
However, these examples point not only to bosses who happen to be Millennials, but poorly trained managers in general. Not only do poorly trained or just plain bad managers cause higher turnover and workplace dissatisfaction for employees, but they can also affect their mental health.
According to 69% of people in a new study by The Workforce Institute at UKG which included 3,400 people across 10 countries, their managers had the greatest impact on their mental health, on par with the impact of their partner. And this was more than the impact of their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%). That’s a stunning and frankly scary finding. It should be a warning to managers about how they conduct their interactions and policies.
Successful management requires recognizing and valuing individual differences, fostering open communication, and creating an inclusive and supportive work environment for all employees, regardless of their generation. Here are some specific ways that employers can show their appreciation for Gen X employees and improve their job satisfaction:
Provide regular feedback and recognition.
Offer opportunities for advancement.
Create a positive work environment that is supportive and flexible.
Make sure that Gen X employees feel valued and respected.
Specific to Millennial managers: by understanding and accommodating the needs and preferences of your Generation X employees, you can create a collaborative and inclusive work environment where everyone can thrive. Embrace the diversity of your team, leverage their strengths, and cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Together, you can achieve remarkable results.
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