Why Baby Boomers and Gen Y need some mutual understanding

By Neil Patrick

Last month, my friend Marc Miller posted a timely and thought provoking piece on his blog Career Pivot entitled, Could you work for a Gen Y boss?

Gen Y, also known as ‘Millennials’, are those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.

As Marc pointed out; “For most baby boomers, thinking about working for a Gen Y boss might seem like a nightmare. Could you work for your kid…or someone your kid’s age?

Projections show that by 2014 millennials will account for 36% of the American workforce. In 2025, that number balloons to 75% of the global workplace.

What does this mean?

You WILL eventually have a Gen Y boss.”

Marc’s piece prompted me to think about the attitude differences between Gen Y and the baby boomers. How the economic environment that each group has experienced has shaped their attitudes and ideas. And how both groups need to learn some mutual appreciation.

The emergence of Gen Yers into positions of seniority and authority is inevitable, so Baby Boomers need to understand them much better and what shapes their attitudes.

We are all victims of the economic crisis

Baby Boomers and Generation X have both been affected by periods of economic downturn at critical attitude development ages (18-25). On the other hand, Generation Y grew up during a period of exceptionally low interest rates and inflation accompanied by significant asset inflation.

This created a level of comfort with debt which was unheard of amongst previous generations.

Unlike the Baby Boomers and Gen X, Generation Y is a group of young adults whose financial attitudes are forged out of cheap debt and easy credit. They also view debt from a perspective of historically low interest rates, and struggle to reconcile this with an economic environment that has now transformed from everything they have ever known.

The explosion in higher education, largely paid for by student loans, has also created an additional debt burden on Gen Yers which was largely absent amongst their predecessors.

Given this, it is not surprising that a recent building society survey* indicates the vast majority of Generation Y who have access to credit, are in significant personal debt. This attitude to debt undoubtedly helped fuel unsustainable increases in consumption when viewed against a harsher economic outlook.

Generation Y is ill-equipped to understand the extent of the current financial turmoil and its potential implications. This financial illiteracy, coupled with extensive borrowing, leaves Generation Y particularly exposed to a recession that it is unable to voice its views upon, as it does not yet occupy sufficiently senior roles in the public or private sectors.

For their part, the Baby Boomers have been left chronically exposed to the aftermath of the credit crunch. Dramatic falls in the stock market have eroded the value of savings and pensions held by Baby Boomers and for most, this has happened at a pivotal moment in which they would have been anticipating moving to a position of asset divestment.

Other assets held outside financial institutions, most notably property, have suffered a fall in value after years of high growth. Ironically, the previous inflation in property prices has been fuelled by Generation Y’s determination to own their first homes, financed through high borrowing ratios and parental subsidies.

In contrast to Generation Y’s position of weakness, their parents are perceived (often wrongly in my view) to enjoy a position of financial strength and even culpability for the present financial crisis. Consequently, I have witnessed an attitude amongst Gen Yers which places blame for their economic frustrations firmly in the hands of the Baby Boomers. An example of this blaming attitude was posted by Australian blogger Mark Fletcher which I posted on this blog here.

Just because something is fast and free doesn’t mean it’s automatically better

Gen Yers have grown up in an age where instant communications and gratification have always been available to them online. Thanks to Facebook and other online networking, they are conditioned into the idea that anything you want can be obtained more or less instantly and often for free.

It’s a far cry from a time when baby boomers like myself were quite happy to save our money for weeks just so we could buy the latest album by our favourite group pressed onto a piece of black vinyl. I also have distinct memories also of doing my homework by candlelight during the power cuts of the 1974-5 brought about by the industrial action of the coal miners. TV companies were obliged to shut down at 10.30pm to conserve energy.

In terms of attitudes to work, Gen Yers unlike baby boomers are less inclined to see their work as the way they define themselves. Boomers when meeting new people habitually open their conversations with something like, ‘And what do you do?’. Gen Yers are much more inclined to discuss the things they like to do outside work. To them work is often nothing more than what they do to pay for their leisure lives.

It’s time for some mutual appreciation guys, or ‘group hugs’ if you’re Gen Y

So how can Boomers and Gen Yers each obtain a better mutual understanding? For Gen Y, I believe they need to appreciate that Boomers have been just as hard hit by the economic crisis as they have. And that they have much less time available to them to try and recover. But having experienced financial hardships before, Boomers are much more financially savvy and resilient than they are. Boomers may not be as comfortable with digital media, but they have an attitude to work which places quality over quantity and speed.

For Boomers to engage successfully with Gen Y, they need to improve their comfort and familiarity with digital media and communications and understand that the Gen Y attitude to their employers as more or less disposable is much more in tune with today’s fluid employment situation.

You also need to really get really comfortable with being a team player. Gen Yers have been conditioned by social media to communicate freely and laterally. That’s the nature of social networks which are digital. It’s not the rigid hierarchy that boomers grew up with.

So Boomers, if you do wind up with a Gen Y boss, you can fully expect them to be texting you with questions or demands at midnight…frequently.

*A report by the Skipton Building Society found that 73% of people under the age of 35 in Yorkshire have some form of debt, with the average person owing £8,477. Their biggest monthly expense on average, other than rent or mortgage payments, was servicing debt. 

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