If you’re in the workforce or about to enter it, chances are good you’ll be rubbing professional elbows with baby boomers. There are still a lot of us around. Some of us are in positions of authority and many of us have been entrenched in our business roles for decades. You’ll be collaborating with us, following our orders, and ordering us around.
Regardless of which relationship dynamic applies, you’ll probably be asking yourself, “Who are these people? What planet are they from?” In this article, I’ll try to offer some insight on boomers, to help make your professional relationships with us more fruitful and enjoyable.
To generalize, the first thing to know about boomers is we hate generalizations, generational generalizations in particular. We were brought up to believe that an individual should be judged on his or her merits; this way of thinking was probably reinforced by a distrust of institutional organizations that was prevalent especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In dealing with boomers, it is best to meet them where they are, rather than assume they hold a particular view on religion, politics, best practices in business, and their attitude toward younger members of the workforce. The fact is, boomers are all over the map on these issues, and next I will comment on why this is the case.
The boomer generation spans from babies born between 1946 and 1964. So the oldest among us are 71 and the youngest, a spry 53. A lot was changing in the world during the late 1940s and 1970s, and these happenings strongly shaped our attitudes. To complicate matters, there are three distinctly different groups of boomers, with very different life experiences:
- Early boomers grew up in the 1950s and were influenced by the conservative, relatively quiet, and very patriotic spirit of those times.
- Mid-boomers grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s, when political and social upheaval were the norm. This was the time of the Vietnam War, hippies, drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll. Mid-boomers tend to have more liberal views than their early boomer brethren, but this is a generalization and by no means universal.
- Late boomers grew up in the mid/late 1970s and early 1980s, when the social and political climates were somewhere in between the early boomer and mid-boomer periods. These boomers are probably the most diverse group of all boomers, owing to the extremely wide range of social and political ideas to which they were exposed and to which they were close.
Again, the best course when forging relationships with boomers is to ask rather than assume. Ask them what they think about this or that business/political/social issue. We will appreciate you taking the time to ask, learn and treat us as individuals. You’ll probably get promoted!
Here are a few more points about boomers that may prove useful:
- Boomers came into the workforce when it was common to have only one or two jobs in an entire career. We make business decisions based on how it will affect our career here, where we work now. We may make the same assumption about how you operate, rightly or wrongly.
- Boomers are used to thinking about work as work, not as a lifestyle choice. We tend to be more concerned about “hard” benefits such as health insurance and bonuses, and less concerned about “soft” benefits such as a dartboard in the lunchroom. Along these lines, we may get a bit agitated when we see younger people taking “unauthorized” breaks at their desks. Desks are for work!
- Boomers tend to be more private than younger people, less willing to share personal details in work conversation and especially on social media. This doesn’t make us cold or uncaring, just more cautious in choosing our confidants.
- Boomers are competitive. We are comfortable with the concept of winners and losers in business, and thrive on meeting and exceeding tough business objectives. We take pride in being part of a successful organization … and get really pissed off when we’re losing. This attitude may come across in day-to-day dealings with fellow employees — sorry.
- Boomers are methodical, systematic thinkers. We are accustomed to reading books (even long ones) and writing reports rather than zipping through 50 tweets and dashing off 50 text messages. This may make us seem like ponderous dinosaurs, but harness our ability to think through complex issues, and it may help you and your organization succeed all the faster.
As a final point, lots of boomers really enjoy mentoring young professionals. It’s a way of giving back to a company or industry that has helped us secure good lives for our families.
So consider asking a boomer for his or her perspective. When I was starting in my career, I’d ask older employees for their thoughts on specific and general business challenges I was experiencing. Sometimes their ideas were like a light switch going off in my head. Other times, I didn’t understand or agree with the advice, but then years later, I would recall the advice and think, “Aha — That’s what they meant! Of course!”
I hope you have similar experiences in your career!
Brad Shorr is Director of Content Strategy at Straight North, an Internet marketing company in Chicago that provides SEO, PPC management and web design services. With more than 25 years of sales and marketing experience, Brad has been featured in leading online publications including Moz, Entrepreneur and Smashing Magazine.