Are Boomers and Millennials Mirror Images?

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD

Do boomers and millennials seem to be on different planets? Why are so many employees who are new to the job market having trouble adjusting? Are their new companies and managers adjusting to them? The reality is boomers and millennials mirror each other.

I am a child of the ‘60s—a boomer for sure. We were a generation that sat-in, protested, and changed culture. My first corporate job was working to create a corporate social responsibility agenda. A critique of millennials is that they want to run the place within months of arrival. I think I did that too. We all have precedents. My father, civil rights activist and business leader Whitney Young, was Dean of a School of Social Work at 34.  Millennials are not a phenomenon in the 21st century workplace.

During my academic career, I oversaw a group of students to create a new program dedicated to their academic success. I determined the strategy and, much to my surprise, got pushback from the students. A middle of the night epiphany brought back memories of when I was in college and we were totally upending the status quo. Rules in place when we entered college (no men in the dormitory rooms, skirts for women in class, curfews) were gone when we graduated.

Why shouldn’t the students I was working with have the same right to determine an agenda for success that would work for them? After an initial shock, I let go of control and allowed the students to periodically toss me out of my office for planning meetings. I was there for guidance and a supportive voice to administration. The students were now in charge.  They did a superb job then and now some 30 years later.

Youth is exuberant, optimistic and fearless. Some boomers have toned down and become more staid. Becoming older has meant wisdom laced with risk aversion.  There is natural head butting between generations who are at different life stages. What millennials do and say may be fueled by 21st century technology, but it is not atypical for their life stage.

Dealing with those new to work requires seeing ourselves in them and finding the ways they add value. Educating to appreciate some of the old with the new is also a great approach. Robert DeNiro’s film, The Intern makes this point perfectly.   The keys are respect, listening and empathy. Recognition and acknowledgement of every individual as employee and customer is a driver of business success was the central thesis of my doctoral dissertation many years ago.  Today, we need to honor that idea more than ever.