Baby boomers harder to engage than millennials? This boomer isn’t so sure

20 June 2016 -


XpertHR’s Mark Crail dispels the myths around the different generations in the workplace and looks at why millennials aren’t actually all that different…

Mark Crail

You might expect that, as a member of the baby boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), I would have a sceptical, even cynical detachment from some of the initiatives dreamt up by the generation X types (born between 1965 and the early 1980s) now taking over the boardroom.

And you might find that more than a little annoying. Don’t deny it; I know you do, because we’ve done the research.

I do try to show enthusiasm when our new director of hard copy connectivity sets out a ‘completely new’ approach that will transform our business – even though it closely resembles how we did things until three years ago, when it was ditched as old-fashioned by the then director of paper clips.

But a small part of me cannot help identifying with Winston Smith: “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

The ability to selectively forget the past is as much of a survival skill in modern management as it was in Nineteen Eighty-Four – and being older, having been around longer than the bright-eyed gen Xers, let alone gen Y millennials (born since the early 1980s), we have so much more to forget.

Perhaps that’s why, when XpertHR surveyed HR professionals about different aspects of employee engagement, baby boomers were generally seen as the most difficult to engage and manage.

To put a bit of data behind that assertion, we asked whether each generation is typically easier or harder to engage and, by subtracting the percentage of those answering ‘harder’ from those answering ‘easier’, created an engagement index.

The HR staff we spoke to had some pretty harsh words for each generation.

Of baby boomers, they said: “Quite cynical and showing latent dissent… [they] want to come to work, be appreciated and do a good job, but are not as interested in climbing the career ladder.” We were also seen as more reluctant to embrace any changes or new initiatives, and “paternalistic and condescending in attitude”.

Survey participants perceived gen Xers “to have a more casual approach to work and expectations of entitlement”. They were seen as “less focused, more socially interactive [and] lacking awareness of business culture”. They “expect rewards whenever they achieve something, rather than recognition being enough”.

Meanwhile, HR staff said that gen Y millennials “have very high expectations of career development, often disproportionate to their value and skill level”. In addition to being “rudderless and arrogant”, they “seem to expect almost instant career paths, development and promotion”.

The whole idea that different generations have massively different expectations of work and need to be managed differently, even rewarded differently, is nothing new. There are endless books with titles such as Generation Y and the New Work Ethic, or simply X vs Y, which aim to help managers understand ‘young people today’.

But I am not sure that I really buy it (the idea, not the book). Born at the tail end of the boomer generation, I do still have enough of my faculties left to remember the workplaces of the early 1980s.

My age cohort and I were just as unrealistic in our expectations of instant recognition and a fast track to the top. We knew that the whole rotten edifice of the companies we worked for was riddled with old fogeys who had time-served their way to the executive corridor and would be blown away by our superiority.

That is not a function of generational experience, but of age, and every generation is the same.

And what about the baby boomers’ resistance to change? In my experience, older workers are quite good at change.

Precisely because we have seen it all before, we know that there is nothing inevitable about the way things are today. Experience tells us that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

It’s the first-jobbers who have only ever seen things done one way who have to be dragged into whatever new nirvana the board has come up with.

Finally, for all those who think we boomers struggle with the internet, I would like to point out one small thing: we invented it!

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