Gen Y vs. Boomers: Workplace Conflict Heats Up
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The Fiscal Times
November 11, 2011

Since graduating from an Ivy League university in 2007, Amanda, a 26-year old New Yorker who asked to have her last name withheld, has struggled to find a good job.  In the spring of 2010 after moving back from San Francisco, she went on several job interviews a week, trying to find work in non-profit education, her preferred field. When that didn’t pan out, she interviewed for numerous entry-level positions ranging from paralegal to administrative assistant.  With still no luck in the job market, she decided to go back to school to get a graduate degree in education.

Some of the issues that she believes stood in her way were the harsh economic climate and the baby boomer managers who interviewed her.

“A large majority of my interviewers were baby boomers well into their careers, some at the edge of retirement,” says Amanda. “Many of the interviewers did not understand my windy path through employment, which is, of course, a characteristic of my generation. They didn’t understand I wasn’t looking for one job for the rest of my life and that I wasn’t looking for money and status.”

This 26-year old isn’t alone. Feelings of desperation and even anger among the millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 2000) towards their baby boomer (those born between 1945 and 1964) managers are common among young job seekers according to experts. The recession has put a damper on their career goals—55.3 percent of those 16-29 were employed in 2010, down from 67.3 percent in 2000, and 5.9 million Americans between 25 and 34 lived with their parents, up from 4.7 million before the recession, according to recent census data.

At the same time, statistics show that baby boomers are delaying retirement. A 2010 study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire found that while 17 percent of men and 9 percent of women age 65 and over were in the labor force in 1995, by 2009, 22 percent of men and 13 percent of women were still working.  Those numbers are expected to grow. According to data from The Population Reference Bureau, the number of older workers in the next few years will increase by 11.9 million, meaning nearly 25 percent of employees will be seniors by 2016. This backlog of older workers has heightened potential workplace conflict between the generations.

Generational conflicts have always been present in the office, but experts say baby boomers and Generation Y in particular have characteristics that can clash. Shantay Bolton, an organizational consultant in Huntsville, Alabama, says that Gen Y tends to have a different set of work-life values than boomers. While boomers tend to be work-obsessed, millennials are demanding flexible schedules that allow them to pursue an active life away from the office. Boomers tend to like autonomy, while millennials want more direction and enjoy collaboration. Bolton says that GenY perceive boomers as “micromanagers” perhaps because boomers tend be competitive, logical, and efficient. She acknowledges that many younger generation workers are frustrated by the poor job market and worry that boomers who delay retirement are making the situation worse.

“I am hearing younger people say that baby boomers are not retiring as quickly as we’d like them to,” Bolton says. “They find that there are barriers to careers advancement, a millennial glass ceiling. Graduates feel a desperation about the limited amount of jobs, paying back student loans, and wondering how they can save for retirement.”

Almost 25 percent of HR professionals reported some generational conflict in the workplace according to a 2011 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).  Forty-seven percent of younger workers complained that older managers were resistant to change and had a tendency to micromanage. About 33 percent of older respondents griped that younger workers informality, need for supervision, and lack of respect for authority were problematic.

Then there’s the technology issue: The SHRM survey found that 38 percent of older workers raised concerns about younger employees “inappropriate use or excessive reliance on technology.”  31 percent of younger workers responded that their managers had an “aversion to technology.”

 “I’ve had issue where older managers do not like when younger people have cell phones on their desks because they don’t understand the sense of urgency younger people have with staying connected,” says a 23-year old Chicago resident who is currently looking for work and didn’t’ want to offend potential employers.

Megan Hadden, 25, has been facing an uphill battle to find and hold on to a job in her small town of Olean, New York. Hadden dropped out of college in 2008 for financial reasons, and since then has had a series of low-paying jobs in the fast food and call center industries.  She was fired from a call center job last June and is now looking for entry-level work as an assistant or receptionist. Hadden says she has witnessed generational conflict in nearly every job she’s had. She sees boomers reluctance to retire as an additional roadblock for young workers.

“It makes it harder for younger people to get promoted,” she says. “It also makes it harder to get jobs. Very few places accept a trainee, when they already have people who know how to do the job, and do it well.”

Trudy Steinfeld, the executive director of New York University Wasserman Center for Career Development, presents a brighter picture for Gen Y graduates. She says despite the economy and generational conflict, millennials are succeeding in the workplace and shedding many of the negative perceptions about them as too dependent on technology, spoiled, and inattentive.

The recession has provided a reality check to change those perceptions.

Steinfeld says millennials add value to workplaces because they are great at multitasking and willing to make themselves available both after hours and on weekends. They’re tech savvy, adept with social media, and willing to speak their minds. Though even with the tough job market, many are still willing to leave an organization if they’re unhappy—or unable to get what they want, says Steinfeld. 

“It’s vital that baby boomers extend an olive branch to Gen Y,” says Meagan Johnson, co-founder of the Johnson Training Group, which specializes in generational conflict at the office. “Gen Y is not working as a mission, they want a connection to a cause.”

David Koeppel is a New York-based journalist who has covered business and economics for a number of publications, including The New York Times, Fortune.com, Newsweek.com, MSN Money and Crain’s New York Business.