I’m often asked why there is so much attention right now to generational differences. Haven’t people of different generations always worked together?
The answer is yes, but the bigger story is that few people realize how dominant one specific generation has been for about the past half-century. Yes, I’m talking about the Baby Boomers.
The reason today’s generational change is so shocking for so many individuals and organizations is the length and power of the Baby Boomer generation’s dominance in almost all of American culture (see rock music, Oprah Winfrey, the U.S. Congress, suburbia, jeans) and particularly in our workplaces.
Often without consciously realizing it, many of us have accepted as “normal” the communication preferences, management styles, work ethic, office layouts, career path preferences, and other practices that were created and/or perpetuated by the Boomers.
When your long-tenured boss tells you, “That’s just the way things are,” the more accurate truth is probably that’s just the way people born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964 tend to do things.
That was certainly true for a Generation Xer like me. For the first decade of my career, there were only three generations in the workplace, and Boomers were overwhelmingly dominant in terms of their sheer numbers. My peers and I pretty much had no choice but to adapt to Boomer preferences if we wanted to get ahead.
My bosses and clients were Boomers, and their bosses’ bosses were almost entirely Boomers, too. No one gave workshops or wrote books on how to appeal to Gen X workers or change the workplace for us.
We simply weren’t populous enough as a demographic group to challenge the Boomer dominance. (Approximately 76 million people were born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964; only 55 million were born between the smaller number of years assigned to Gen X by the Pew Research Center, 1965 and 1980.)
In my first “real” job after graduate school, I was honored to be invited to a lunch meeting with my new boss, Rick, and a consultant named Betsy, who was working with our team. Rick and Betsy proceeded to spend twenty minutes talking about their mutual obsession with the Watergate trial and as I was trying to slink down underneath the white tablecloth, they eventually turned their attention to me, at which point they asked if I was even alive during Watergate.
As it happens, I was born in September 1974, about a month after the “Smoking Gun” tape was released, which I admitted very quietly. But if you want any proof of how dominant the Baby Boomer experience was and often still is, can we pause to note that this business lunch was taking place approximately twenty-five years after Watergate and it was still a topic of conversation??!!
Of course, time moves fast, and the white tablecloth flipped a decade later. At this point, I had launched my own business and was about to deliver a speech at a college in upstate New York, when I noticed a student sitting in the front row wearing a New York Mets T-shirt.
Trying to bond with him and act cooler than I am— always a mistake— I said, “Hey, you’re a Mets fan? I actually went to the ’86 World Series!” He smiled uncomfortably and said, “Oh. That’s the year I was born.”
Yes, that young Mets fan was a Millennial. And, as of 2016, Millennials (the generation born from approximately 1981 to 1996) overtook the Boomers, my fellow Xers, and the Traditionalists to become the largest generation in the United States.
Thanks to their large numbers, it is likely that Millennials are at the beginning of a long period of generational dominance in the workplace, just like the Baby Boomers before them. (Generation Z, the cohort born 1997 and later have arrived as well, but they are significantly smaller than the Millennials.)
What does all of this mean? That it is more important than ever to understand the work styles, expectations, and communication preferences of Millennials. All generations must flex for each other, but there is little question that Millennials will dominate the next several decades of work just as Boomers dominated the past.
This blog post is adapted from my new book The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, your go-to guide for leading and succeeding in the multigenerational workplace. Get your copy today on Amazon or Barnes & Noble today!