Baby boomers with younger managers a new workplace dynamic

Published January 14 2012

The generational shift is in full swing. Approximately 76 million baby boomers are set to exit the workforce in large numbers over the next 10 years. By 2020, an estimated 25 million people are expected to downsize their roles or seek part-time, job-sharing positions as an alternative to full retirement. These numbers signal a potential transfer in the day-to-day leadership roles in workplaces everywhere; and a strong likelihood that significantly younger managers will be managing older and more seasoned employees.

These younger managers — echo boomers — are a part of the Generation Y/Millennial, era. Echo boomers represent the next dominant generation of Americans. Eighty million strong, they are the first generation to be plugged into the Internet revolution from the start, and account for about one-quarter of the U.S. population.

Here are two scenarios, along with some helpful tips for baby boomers and echo boomers facing this dilemma.

Scenario one: Your boss is an Echo Boomer

A baby boomer reports to work for the first time and finds that an echo boomer is in charge.

If you find yourself on the subordinate side of the equation, — don't take it personally. Not all older employees want to be in a management position. But if you do and feel like you have been overlooked, the first step is to accept the decision. First things first: breathe. Next, put your hurt feelings aside and avoid the temptation to show everyone involved that they've made a mistake. It's natural to feel your competitive reflexes kick in when a younger manager takes the helm, but resist the urge to prove that you were the better choice. That will only result in an uncooperative perception to fellow employees and other managers. In today's high-tech, hyper-connected world it's quite possible that a younger employee could have the skill sets that senior leadership is looking for.

Instead, treat your new manager like a customer. Offer to sit with him or her and learn as much as you can about his or her back story, what he or she did beforehand, and what he or she brings to the table. Learn what he or she will need help with in order to succeed. That conversation takes diplomacy—on both sides. But when the wiser, more experienced employee positions it as a sincere attempt to bond and partner-up, a new working relationship and even a friendship might blossom.

Don't be shy about suggesting new ideas that you think might work better. The younger boss will value this if he sees it as advice and not criticism. With all perceptions of a potential turf battle out of the picture, you might be pleasantly surprised how open to being coached and even mentored, younger bosses may be.

Scenario two: Young boss manages baby boomers

An inexperienced manager wrestles with the idea of motivating and managing a team of baby boomers. How these dynamics play out will likely depend on the attitudes, actions, and communication styles of all involved.

If you're the younger boss, there's never been a better time to act with maturity. You may be the next rising star in the firm but don't buy into the hype.

Instead, put all your energies into cultivating a team. One way to get the most out of a baby boomer staff is by acknowledging them. Older workers are a great source of wisdom, experience and know-how. Respect that. In fact, point it out as an asset. Solicit their input. Not only will you gain perspective — useful nuggets of wisdom that are the byproducts of experience, but you will dignify their roles by asking. That interchange and dynamic, can set the stage for a positive working relationship right off the bat.

Keep in mind, baby boomers are competitive and your new assignment may represent a psychological setback for them. Don't reinforce, on any level, that they are not a big part of the plan moving forward. Instead of assigning tasks, ask for help. Rather than dictating, suggest. And above all, find a "win" in every meaningful effort. Help them buy into the end game. Make them want to work for you.

Effective communications in any scenario will be critical, and both generations will need to embrace new methods. If you're a baby boomer and you haven't mastered your cellphone or BlackBerry, what are you waiting for? If you're not willing to change, then you can't be in the echo boomers' inner circle, let alone part of the conversation. Expect more instant messages, text messages and emails than you care to receive. Keep your cell phone charged and on you 24/7. Echo boomers are all about getting answers and feedback now.

Baby boomers shouldn't expect many regular meetings to discuss projects and goals. But don't fret from the lack of structure. Echo boomers see autonomy as its own reward. If you're not being "managed" that usually means you are trusted. Similarly, younger managers would be wise to keep in touch with older workers. It's your job to recognize that the virtual nature of your communication styles can cause a feeling of distance and anxiety among workers who are used to more face-to-face contact.

Mike Ryan is Madison Performance Group's senior vice president of Marketing & Strategy. He is an industry authority, speaker and writer focusing on the latest trends that impact workforce engagement and sales incentive marketing. Ryan is president of the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), a board member of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA), and a trustee of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF).