Why baby boomers and millennials make great friends

The baby boomer and millennial generations are a match made in heaven. Their friendship could become an unsuspecting source of power for an organisation, team or project. So how do you tap into this resource?

By Fiona Hewitt.

During my career, I’ve learned that leadership lessons can come from a variety of sources. People such as mentors, friends, kids, managers can inspire and challenge you to do great things. But you can also learn from fictional experiences featured in books and movies. I recently took a break from catching up on work over the weekend to take in a movie titled The Intern with my husband.

While watching the movie, we realised there are some resounding business lessons we could take from it; especially in regards to mixing generations in the workplace.
The movie features Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro and is about the founder of an e-commerce business that hires senior citizens as office interns. The light-hearted film included everything from the multifaceted office dynamics, teamwork, to inter-generational communications and collaboration that offered a few stark similarities to the New Zealand workforce today.

Two of the key megatrends affecting New Zealand, and most other developed countries, are harnessing the potential of older workers and attracting and retaining millennials. This got me thinking, much has been written stereotyping both the millennial and baby boomer but not much has been written on the benefit of pairing these generations.
The combination of millenials quickly advancing up the professional ranks and baby boomers often refusing to retire has, over the course of five years, dramatically shifted the composition of the global workforce, so how can these generations work together to benefit the future?

The millennials
The first word that comes to mind when I think of millennial is “potential”. This generation, described as the “me, me, me” generation by Time magazine, have ample motivation, are able to work across a range of task domains, have an intuited understanding of technology and are digital natives. As much as they dislike criticism, this generation also has much to learn.

One of the biggest challenges millenials face is that they haven’t had the time to learn what works and what doesn’t. They also lack leadership capabilities other generations have already gained.

Learning to lead is a big priority. In Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, 63 percent of respondents believed that their organisations could do more to develop future leaders, which opens a massive opportunity for organisations that develop and become known for strong leadership programmes and provide good mentors.
Millennials fully appreciate that leadership skills are important to business and recognise that, in this respect, their development may be far from complete. But, based on the current results, millennials believe businesses are not doing enough to bridge the gap to ensure a new generation of business leaders is created, and this amongst other factors is causing them to leave.

The Baby Boomers
On the other hand, the best word to describe baby boomers, in my opinion, is “experience”. They have this intangible wisdom that comes from decades of trial and error; forming and living through relationships, projects, and experiences.

According to the PwC Golden Age Index 2015, New Zealand has the second highest employment rates of 55-64-year-olds in the 34 OECD countries and the employment rate of 65-69 has been rising since 2003.

Although their experience is unparalleled this generation also has an uneven relationship with technology and its role in business which leads to challenges in the workplace.

The friendship
Whilst these generations may be polar opposites in many ways, baby boomers and millennials do have some fundamental similarities. They tend to share many attitudes and behaviours that set them apart from other generations. These shared preferences constitute a new centre of gravity for human resources management.

According to Harvard Business Review, these generations are similar in their need for work-life balance. Forty seven percent of millennials say it’s important that the company they work for offers sabbatical leave, a perk also deemed favorable by the boomers. Both groups see such breaks as opportunities for personal fulfillment: 53 percent of millenials and 49 percent of boomers who temporarily step away from work use the time to explore passions or volunteer.

Furthermore, both generations are equally motivated in helping this world become a better place. Millennials and baby boomers also share a heightened sense of obligation to make a positive contribution to society and to the health of the planet.

According to the Harvard Business Review respectively, 86 percent and 85 percent say it’s important that their work involves “giving back.” That’s not as true for Gen X: People in their thirties and early forties are 10 percent less likely than a twenty-something to find this important.

Furthermore, what is most encouraging to see is that what one generation lacks, the other has in ample amounts.

For the millennials, their search for leadership, advice and guidance can be found in the baby boomers unprecedented work and life experience. In contrast, the baby boomers can use millennials not only for technical support but also as a tangible way to give back and pass along what they have learned to a generation determined to make a difference.

These generations are a match made in heaven. Their friendship would become an unsuspecting source of power for an organisation, team or project. Here is how I would structure this union.

The structure

  • It’s all about a wider purpose: An important ingredient in uniting these generations is to make sure they adhere to the mission and goals of the projects rather than how the project gets done. These two have different approach to completing tasks, so rather highlighting that difference, encourage them to unite, be creating a sense of purpose.
  • Communication is the solution: In order to get these generations to work together both millennials and baby boomers need to have an open line of communication. The boomers already have ample experience communicating with all kinds of people over their career so encouraging them to approach millennials and get them to open up about career ambitions. This is good step as it appeals to the millennials’ need for mentoring and thirst for professional development.
  • Set their team dynamic as flat, not hierarchical: Another important consideration in building these relationships is to set team dynamics as flat, not hierarchical. Trust and respect are built when team members work together to achieve objectives and working as a team allows them to understand each other’s strengths and weakness.

Every generation has strengths and weaknesses and by working together we have an opportunity to interchange ideas and experiences, learn from each other, and make this world and businesses the best they’ve ever been.

Creating an effective team structure can benefit both generations substantially. The millennial can teach the boomer so much about technology; models, software, web tools that can aid in productivity. In contrast the boomer can teach the millennial so much on tactics strategy, what’s worked in the past, relationship management and most importantly teach the millennial how to play to their strengths to get ahead.

Aristotle once said “the whole is greater than the sums of its parts” and this applies to all generations. 

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