The millennials are a large cohort, but there aren't enough of them in skilled professions to replace all the retirement-age boomers. And it's now dawning on many boomers that they can't afford to retire like their parents did, working full time up to a certain birthday and then not working at all.
From hula hoops to minivans, psychedelics to Viagra, whatever the boomers wanted, they usually got.
For a long time, American life revolved around the baby boomers. It was the country's largest generation and its biggest market, and it moved the economy and culture through sheer numbers.
Boomers changed the workplace, too, or at least they tried. They certainly came to dominate it, often clogging the career paths of younger colleagues. But now there's a new generation, born between the mid-'80s and the early 2000s, that approaches the size and strength of the boomers.
The millennials are here, and they are shaking up the workplace. The meeting of boomers and millennials at the office was the topic of a roundtable discussion in Framingham, Mass., this week, spotlighting inter-generational "collisions and collaboration."
They might have added complaints. Millennials complain that their smartphones can do more than the clunky PCs the company provides. They roll their eyes at tech-challenged boomer bosses who confuse their multi-tasking with laziness and distraction. They demand flexibility for themselves and transparency from their supervisors. They expect their current job to be just a short stop on a long career road, and they wonder why their older colleagues find that worrisome.
Boomers have at least some lingering memory of a time when workers and companies were expected to be loyal to each other, and they complain that millennials are more connected to their personal networks than the corporation.
Boomers complain about millennials' loose dress –– to them, “casual Fridays” mean a clean, colored Oxford shirt with no tie, while millennials see no reason not to wear pajama pants to work every day. They grouse about their dependence on spell check, their ignorance of anything that happened before 1990 and the electronics they always seem to be plugged into.
These workplace relationships are complicated, in part, by the fact that boomers and millennials think they know each other's types all too well.
"Boomers complain about millennials without recognizing they gave birth to them and raised them," said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work and Family.
Millennials prefer to work in teams because the schools we boomer parents sent them to stressed group projects. They expect reinforcement because the teams we coached made sure every kid got a trophy, whether they won or not. Young workers are wired to the latest technology because they grew up using the PlayStations, laptops and cellphones their parents bought for them.
And sometimes when the millennials rebel against authority and the conventional way of doing things, well, maybe that's something they got from their parents, too.
Boomers and millennials must accommodate each other for many reasons. There's work to be done that requires both the experience of older workers and the fresh outlook of younger ones. Boomers running companies that must keep up with technological change need millennials to help them Tweet and Facebook and whatever the next social networking wave will be.
Today's customers have as big of a generational divide as the workplace. Companies need to sell to both boomers and millennials, and that takes different sets of tools and, sometimes, different languages.
Accommodation requires knowing what each generation wants. Boomers want flexible workplaces that allow them time to care for growing kids and aging parents. They want reliable partners, effective communications, efficiency and measurable results.
Millennials want constant feedback, the ability to set their own goals and pursue their own interests. They like working in teams, not in hierarchies. They multi-task, listening to music, monitoring their Facebook pages, playing games and messaging buddies while working on that report the boss wants. They want to be able to work in the middle of the night, to break for pingpong at will and to have gourmet food in the company cafeteria. They want to be judged on their work, not on their piercings.
Companies are finding ways to accommodate the differences. Josh Stuebing, a young account manager and social specialist at Google, told the forum at Framingham State University that his company expects half-hour one-on-one feedback sessions between employees and supervisors once a week.
Jessica Yu, a human resources specialist, said her company, Mitre Corp. in Bedford, Mass., has instituted "reverse mentoring" so older supervisors can learn from younger colleagues. Mitre's CEO meets regularly with a “millennial advisory board.”
Millennials are learning, too. Stuebing said the new rule at Google is you keep your smartphone in your pocket during business meetings. If checking your email or returning a text is that important –– and the company recognizes it often –– you're to leave the meeting, take care of it and return.
Today's young people are often more comfortable texting than talking, according to the forum. Colleges and workplaces are starting to stress the importance of eye contact and face-to-face communication. Universities are offering training in interview skills and "dinner etiquette," knowing how ill-prepared many twenty-somethings are to take an important client to a classy restaurant.
These generations will come to embrace each other in the workplace, just as they did at home, because they have shared interests: Millennials want to be able to break for pingpong while Boomers may prefer to squeeze in a nap between projects.
Boomers are multi-tasking, too, and they are often just as interested in flexible hours, working from home and video-conferencing from the road as their younger colleagues.
Then there's the big picture. The millennials are a large cohort, but there aren't enough of them in skilled professions to replace all the retirement-age boomers. And it's now dawning on many boomers that they can't afford to retire like their parents did, working full time up to a certain birthday and then not working at all. They'll have to work longer, but they'd like to be able to work less, with more time for travel, hobbies, community service and the pleasures of semi-retirement.
The things millennials are good at –– teamwork, technology, networking, flexibility and respect for diversity –– will be the keys toward making that transition work. The 21st-century workplace can be good for everyone if these two large generations reshape it together.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at email@example.com. For more information on Leadership MetroWest and its Leadership Rountable series, visit www.leadershipmetrowest.org.