Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Baby Boomers and Millennials Make Great Teams

Much has been written stereotyping both the millennial and baby-boomer generations, but the real insight lies in how they work together – if given the right environment.

There are roughly 66 million baby-boomers in the U.S., most of whom were supposed to be retiring in the next five to ten years. But the instability of the financial system in the last decade (and its effects on personal savings and retirement accounts), along with a growing interest in doing meaningful work that has a positive impact in the world, is leading to a budding new trend for Boomers: encore careers.

Championed by enterprising organizations such as Encore.org, encore careers are follow-on careers where Boomers take the skills, knowledge, and wisdom they’ve gained from decades of work and put them to use on projects that they find personally meaningful. This means more Boomers will be sticking around in the office for years and years to come.

On the other end of the demographic spectrum are the Millennials – roughly 90 million strong – sandwiching Gen X (93 million). Millennials are known as tech-savvy, idealistic, and (in some cases) hard for older generations to work with. But when you do the math, it’s clear that Boomers and Millennials will be increasingly working side-by-side.

Rather than buy into the oil-and-water view, I propose a different view of this inevitable mixing. I see vibrant, powerful opportunity due to the overlapping nature of what each group needs and wants, and what each has to give.

At the core of the Millennial energy is potential.

  • Relatively fresh, especially in the working world. Millennials haven’t had time to learn what doesn’t work – their brains aren’t wired yet.
  • Able to work incredibly hard when they are motivated to do so. Intense focus, long hours, across a range of task domains.
  • Intuitively understand technology – they are “digital natives.”
  • Want to see the world become a better place for themselves and their future families.
  • Want mentors who can guide them and explain what mistakes to avoid to maximize their progress and contribution.

At the core of Boomer energy is experience.

  • Spent decades learning, their brains are wired now for what works.
  • Intangible wisdom that comes from decades of forming and living through relationships, projects, and experiences.
  • Tend to have an uneven relationship with technology, how it works, and what is possible.
  • Want to see the world become a better place for their kids and grandkids.
  • Want to feel like they have a direct and tangible way to give back and pass along the things they’ve learned.

I think these groups are a match made in heaven. Here’s how I would structure a Boomer-Millennial dream team to become an unsuspecting source of power for a project or business unit.

Rather than buy into the oil-and-water view, I propose a different view of this inevitable mixing. I see vibrant, powerful opportunity.

Stress the importance of communication.

This is the most important one. Over-communication is better than insufficient communication. I’d want them communicating about everything – including (especially, in fact) difficult situations like when one of them is frustrated, or confused, or impatient, or anxious.

  • I’d look to the Boomer’s experience with relationships – of all kinds – over her career as a source of confidence in her being able to talk with the Millennial.
  • And I’d appeal to the Millennial’s priority of personal growth and development in taking the time – even when it’s uncomfortable – to talk about his thoughts and emotions with the Boomer.

Contextualize the project in relation to its goals.

This means focusing on the mission, the underlying purpose, the reason why the thing matters – and not about the process of how it’ll get done. This appeals to their shared sense of purpose.

For example, compare:

“Our job is to judge the effectiveness of urban gardens.”

Versus:

 “We’re here to figure out whether or not the free installation of urban gardens in Denver helps low-income families eat healthier or not. We’ve got nine months to come up with initial findings. It’s important because if the answer is no, then $500,000 of foundation money can go somewhere that it’s being better spent next year. If the answer is yes, it means we have a national model that other cities can learn from. So this is a huge opportunity to make a worthwhile contribution.”

Set their team dynamic as flat, not hierarchal.

Like any team, Millennials and Boomers need to work together to find the best way to achieve the project goals. At times they should each be leading. Neither is the boss. Under this dynamic, they have to build trust by understanding each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

Make it clear that you expect two-way teaching and learning.

This should be the case no matter how the project is going. Especially when uncertainty is high and they aren’t sure what the right course of action is.

  • Invite the Boomer to share her perspective based on previous experiences she’s had, contextualizing it for the Millennial with specific examples and explanations of why certain approaches are likely to work better. I also expect her to proactively think about the Millennial’s strengths and weaknesses, and make suggestions about how he can best leverage his natural talents for the project – and beyond.
  • Invite the Millennial to teach the Boomer about models, software, and web tools that he thinks would aid the project in a way that she understands (note: that’s his responsibility, not hers).

A lot of these points would go for any team that I’d assemble, but my hunch is that there is an extra bit of magic in a Boomer/Millennial duo that is set up for success and encouraged to play off of each other’s inherent strengths.

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How about you?

What else do you think could be done to build a strong inter-generational team? What’s worked for you?

More insights on: Collaboration

Nathaniel Koloc

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Nathaniel is the co-founder of ReWork where his team is determined to change the world by helping people find work that they love.
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