I am pleased to invite my colleague and friend, Chip Espinoza, to Leadershiptraq. Chip is the co-author of Managing The Millennials 2nd edition. He also co-authored Millennials@Work, and Millennials Who Manage. He is the Academic Director of Organizational Psychology at Concordia University Irvine.


As Baby Boomers exit the workforce, are GenX and Millennials compatible?

First, if we did not have GenX in the workforce, there would be mayhem. GenX understands the Baby Boomers and can interpret their behavior for Millennials and they can explain Millennial behavior to Baby Boomers.

Up until now the greatest amount of generational tension has been between Baby Boomers and Millennials (the two largest age cohorts ever) but there is growing tension between GenX and Millennials. It is partly due to the fact that what I call first wave Millennials (started work prior to 2008) are being promoted into management. In many cases Millennials, will have the same title and pay with 10-15 years less experience. In addition, there are now more Millennials in the workforce than any other generation.

GenX waited patiently for the Baby Boomers to get out of the way but they are now finding Millennials trying to leapfrog them. In Group Norm Theory, the dominant group gets to set the agenda and make the rules. Millennials are already changing the rules and GenX is not impressed! Just read the comment section at the bottom of anything positive written about Millennials—you will see GenX readers sharing their frustration about working with Millennials.

GenX and Millennials are alike in that they want to have a life outside of career and do not find their identity in titles or how hard they work. They also both appreciate a casual work environment. It could be argued that GenX is responsible for casual Fridays. When GenX first entered the workforce they were called “slackers.” When Millennials first entered the workforce they were called apathetic.

Here are some significant differences between the two age cohorts:

GenX is a highly independent generation. They prefer figuring things out and tackling projects on their own. They did very well with “sink or swim” training. They are very comfortable with ambiguity.

Conversely, ambiguity is kryptonite to Millennials. They need lots of detail and clearly articulated expectations. The “sink or swim” style of training does not work with them. That is very frustrating to GenX managers. Millennials prefer to work on teams and are highly collaborative while GenX thrives in isolation.

GenX is pessimistic by nature. They are the first generation that does not think they will have a better lifestyle than that of their parents. They got hit the hardest in the Great recession of 2008. They bought homes at the top of the market and lost most of their retirement.

Millennials are highly optimistic. They believe they will have a better lifestyle than that of their parents. Although the job market was bleak for half a decade, Millennials did not lose home equity or investments. They just moved back in with parents and went to grad school.

GenX desires work-life balance. Millennials are pushing for work-life blending. They do not mind accessing work during their personal time but they want to access their personal lives at work.

GenX had to be very patient with respect to career development (opportunity, upward mobility, promotions). Millennials are incredibly impatient and expect opportunity and upward mobility to come early and often. Millennials are way more aggressive with respect to career advancement.

GenX exemplifies what it means to manage up. They can get anything they want from a Baby Boomer. Just assure the Baby Boomer the idea was theirs, they are in charge, they are amazing, and the hardest worker in the building. Millennials don’t understand why their ideas are not taken seriously or they are not valued for their contribution.

The two generations are actually compatible but there is a growing tension that will need to be addressed. I think Millennials will find it easier to work with GenX. There will be a sibling rivalry of sorts. Due to cohort size, Millennials will continue to get all of the attention. GenX is incredibly adaptable. There is no doubt in my mind they will be able to work effectively with Millennials (they already have been). However, if they sit around and wait for Millennials to be more like them or revere their experience, they will find themselves frustrated and ineffective as leaders.

It is interesting, GenX had to adapt to the Baby Boomers and therefore we have missed out on some of the changes they would have liked to make in the workplace. I think it is safe to credit them with the move toward work-life balance, casual Fridays, telecommuting, virtual teams, teleconferencing, and automation.

Millennials will probably have greater success with respect to implementing how they want to work because they will not be in the shadow of a huge generation.

I believe if GenX would have been a bigger generation we would have seen a positive change in things like gender equality pay and race relations. I will be shocked if Millennials do not move the needle on such important issues. GenX’s greatest impact in the workplace is yet to come and odds are it will have to do with their ability to influence Millennials.

3 Things Millennials Can Learn From GenX:

  • How to deal with ambiguity
  • How to manage up
  • How to negotiate organizational culture

Managing the Millennials Second Edition can help GenX managers position themselves to be better managers, coaches and mentors.

Pre-Order your Managing the Millennials, 2nd Edition NOW!