Leading a Multi-Generational Workforce – The Baby Boomers

21 Feb

Leading a Multi-Generational Workforce – The Baby Boomers

Do you lead employees who are aged in their 50’s or 60’s? Are you a leader in this age group? This is the golden age of the Baby Boomer. As a cohort, this is the most powerful generation we have known. They changed the rules of the game and continue to do so. But what drives them and what do you need to consider as their leader?

Born in the post-war era, this group has certain characteristics that were seared into their consciousness from a young age. Baby Boomers early life experience was defined by the fact that there were a lot of them. They were part of the post war population explosion. Big families, new housing estates, schools bursting at the seams, kids to play with everywhere. Boomers typically describe idealistic childhoods, great freedom and exciting times.

There was a subtext to this. The early years of the Boomer kids was extremely competitive. Status was everything. Which family had the latest car, who got a TV first, a washing machine or a motorised lawn mower? The list of must haves for the expanding population in the suburbs seemed never ending.

At school, the competition was even tougher. As the population exploded, there were never enough desks and chairs. Often, not enough classrooms. It was tough to make the sports teams or to get a place in the school band. You had to be good at what you did. Classes were large, often with more than 30 kids. The education system drove competitiveness from the earliest age. At the top of every school report, were two numbers: Number in Class and Position in Class. Each child was ranked by the teacher. Try going home with a report card with Number in Class 31, Position in Class: 27!

Socially, the Boomers were conditioned that if you worked hard, anything was possible. This is when the great Australian dream of the quarter acre block was formed. We’d won the war, stared down Communism, put a man on the moon and invented the Beatles. We could do anything!

There was also a job for everybody. The concept of unemployment didn’t exist. It was accepted that if you didn’t have a job, you were just bone lazy. The only question was how high could you rise in the ranks? Boomers were already fiercely competitive when they hit the workforce. Their competitive instincts were rewarded in the corporate world. Over time, they gained control of remuneration and reward systems and re-invented them. They implemented service related pay advancement, introduced big rewards and bonuses and ensured the status symbols associated with rank and hierarchy were constantly on display.

So what does this mean for the Baby Boomer leader and employees today?

Boomers love ceremony and symbols. They get a kick out of singling out a hard working employee for public praise. Boomers also love being singled out for praise. Their reaction is often the complete opposite to that of their Gen X colleague. Don’t get me wrong, everybody likes public praise, but it gives a Baby Boomer a special buzz.

Boomers relate particularly well to Gen Y’s. This is not surprising, as the Gen Y’s are their kids. Gen Y’s respond fondly to Boomers for the same reasons. Getting a 55 year old and a 25 year old to collaborate on a project can often release positive energy with remarkable results.

Boomer women leaders are some of the toughest people I have had to work with when it comes to encouraging workplace flexibility. Many are disinclined to support opportunities for other women to access part time, flexible or job share work that they wished they had accessed, but could not. Many times I’ve negotiated conversations that have started with “I did it tough, she needs to….”

Boomers were taught that work was work and home was home. Consequently, working from home just doesn’t compute for many. Leaving home in the morning and returning at night carries its own form of status and legitimises the work experience for Boomers. Workplace flexibility programs therefore cannot be introduced as ‘experiments’ and must have objective KPI’s to convince Boomer leaders of their merit.

The challenge in the next decade for leaders is twofold:

Most Boomers will retire. Unless you put plans in place to undertake an orderly handover of the intellectual property they’ve built up and typically carry in their heads, they will not hand it over. It’s not in their nature. More worryingly, they may also retire at a moment’s notice. Many are just one trip to the doctor away from a Road to Damascus experience.

Conversely, many Boomers have seen their retirement plans slip away as the economic cycle of the last 10 years has bitten hard. Some will be in the workforce for far longer than they had planned. Use their skills and wisdom for the benefit of the company. Do not leave them sitting in jobs that they believe they should have moved on from. Create new roles that tie together the benefit of their experience with business needs. Engage them as generational links, teachers, mentors and subject matter experts.

Mostly, ask Boomers how they believe their contribution can best be made. The question may make them uncomfortable, but they will value the discussion.

Next – those cynical, brooding Gen X’ers.