Can Baby Boomers Succeed in a Millennial World?

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You’re in a staff meeting with the new boss. As you sit there thinking she must be about the same age as your daughter, she welcomes two new apple-cheeked team members whom, you have heard, the company hired at half of your salary and the salary of the workers they are replacing. You are asked to mentor one of them on a “new” initiative — an idea, it turns out, that is a lot like a project you led a decade ago. You feign enthusiasm.

The plight of the baby boomer in an increasingly millennial-focused workplace is playing out with greater regularity. Next year, 20-to-35-year-olds are poised to overtake 52-to-70-year-olds as a percentage of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. Many baby boomers today find themselves reporting to supervisors younger than themselves. Working at a time of great pressure for higher corporate profits and increasingly sophisticated technical skills, boomers, after spending years as the most coveted generation, often now feel as if they’re getting pushed aside and out.

“Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM” is the headline on a recent ProPublica report that found IBM had targeted older employees for layoffs even when they were rated as high performers. The story further alleges that money saved from the layoffs was used to hire younger replacements; that IBM encouraged workers targeted for layoffs to apply for other jobs within the company even as it advised managers not to hire them; and that after telling some older workers they were being laid off because their skills were out of date, the company brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay.

IBM responded to the story by saying it was “proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law.”

ProPublica pointed out that IBM has nearly 400,000 employees worldwide, and “how it handles the shift from its veteran baby-boom workforce to younger generations will likely influence what other employers do.”

But companies eager to move baby boomers along should be careful what they wish for. For one thing, millennials are less likely to stay in jobs than others, and turnover often carries high hidden costs. For another, few workplaces have mastered a system for transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.

There are other compelling reasons for organizations to not give baby boomers the bum’s rush.

“When we talk about gender and ethnic diversity, a powerful argument for diversity is that you want to look something like your customers,” says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “If everybody you employ is a white male, that will come back and bite you, because you are not in a good position to understand your customers. There has to be an equivalent argument about age.”

He notes that if everybody in an organization is middle age and older and a large part of its customer base is younger people, then there is logic in hiring some employees who can relate to those customers. “Does that mean a wholesale clearing out of baby boomers? Absolutely not,” he adds.

Energizing at least some of the push for generational turnover are stereotypes that have developed around baby boomers, millennials and others – for example, that millennials are apathetic, and that boomers are intransigent and tech-adverse.

But are there really intrinsic, permanent differences among the generations? No, says Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, director of the school’s Center for Human Resources.

“Young people do behave differently than older people,” he says. “It’s just that a few decades from now, they may be different workers with essentially the same kinds of frictions.”

The bias of fundamental attribution error, Cappelli says, means that when we see behavior, we attribute it to our assumptions about the character or disposition of the person rather than thinking about the circumstances that make them behave that way. “If someone is racing down the highway, we assume it is because they are a jerk and don’t consider the possibility that they have an emergency,” he points out. “When we see young people in our office focused on things other than work, we assume it is because of their character rather than the fact that at this point in life, socializing is always a central activity, and we forget that we were like that once as well. Of course, it has also become an industry of consultants selling solutions to this alleged problem.”

The real force impelling companies to lay off the old and hire the young is less complicated than all that, says Cappelli: “To save money.”

False Stereotypes

This doesn’t necessarily mean that today’s 21-to-36-year-olds are the same in every way as 21-to-36-year-olds a half-century ago. For one thing, workers from each succeeding generation since the so-called “greatest” are less likely to be white. In the U.S., the generation that is 72 or older is 79% white and boomers are 72% white, while whites makes up just 56% of millennials.

More LGBTQ workers today are likely to be out. This more diverse workforce brings different experiences to bear on decisions.

But “meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist on the work-related variables we examined and the differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership,” found the authors of “Generational Differences in Work-Related Attitudes: A Meta-analysis,” published in 2012 in the Journal of Business and Psychology. The analysis looked at 20 studies covering nearly 20,000 individuals from various generations and concluded that “targeted organizational interventions addressing generational differences may not be effective.”

Still, the tendency to stereotype workers according to age is “really quite profound,” says Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary. “The reality is, we use labels and categories as a way of simplifying complex information; we refer to men and women and we assign attributes and characteristics to those groups of people to make it easier to understand the patterns of their actions.” The problem comes when that information is full of negative connotations — such as baby boomers aren’t into tech, they don’t want to get with the times, or millennials aren’t committed at all. “I think it’s a fine line between how we understand some of the things that influence workers in our workforce without using those categories to create harmful stereotypes,” Creary notes.
Much of the friction around the boomers-versus-millennials question stems from the fact that the pace of change in many industries is currently so rapid that employers themselves are struggling with their workforce needs, says Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions Prasanna Tambe. “The pace at which technological change is disrupting industries is as fast as it has ever been within the last century,” he says. “… That is the moment we are in, where organizations are struggling to respond to new and difficult questions about their workforce needs that are being raised by the disruption of their traditional business models or by technologies like new internal communication tools or artificial intelligence systems. It’s not surprising if this uncertainty further exacerbates the tensions that already arise naturally when employees of different ages are together in the workplace.”
For years, it was understood that people take a job, and as they got older they would get promoted, says Creary. “There were tighter links between age and tenure and promotions.

With millennials came new ways of working as a society. We have the internet and other ways of working that are non-traditional that allow people to circumvent a lot of the hoops. I think we are reacting to the very changing nature of work.”

Another layer of uncertainty comes from the fact that in some sectors and at many companies, it’s not yet clear which revenue center will be generating the lion’s share of profits. Says Tambe: “The industry-level disruption is part of the story, and it may be the case that older workers hold more of those industry-specific skills that are now being endangered when employers don’t know where their revenue will come from in the next 10 years.”

In the meantime, many baby boomers feel their options are limited. Some may not have enough squirreled away for retirement to end their careers, while others whose careers have been ended unjustly by their employers find themselves stymied by limited legal remedies.

“Age discrimination litigation has stalled,” says Janice Bellace, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. “Every survey of working persons over 50 shows that a large majority feels that there is age discrimination. Yet, there are few lawsuits.”

One reason for the paucity of lawsuits, she says, is the Supreme Court’s view of what the plaintiff must prove. “It is much more difficult to prove age discrimination than race or sex discrimination. This relates to a somewhat technical point. Both Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) have similar language; namely, that an employer cannot take an unfavorable action ‘because of’ an employee’s protected characteristic,” she notes. “In a 1989 sex discrimination case, the Supreme Court considered an adverse employment action which was based on both permissible and impermissible factors, a so-called ‘mixed motives’ case, and held that where an impermissible factor was a motivating factor, the burden of persuasion shifted to the employer to show that it would have taken the same [adverse] action even absent the impermissible factor.”
In 1991, Congress amended Title VII to incorporate the mixed motive model for Title VII discrimination claims. However, Congress never amended the ADEA. In 2009, in an age discrimination case involving the demotion of an employee with 32 years’ service, the Supreme Court focused on the language of the ADEA, “because of age,” and held that the plaintiff must prove that age was the determinative factor for the adverse employment action.
Says Bellace: “In other words, the plaintiff had to show that ‘but for’ his age, he would not have been demoted. It was not sufficient that age was one factor, even a substantial factor, if there were other factors.” As a result, in an ADEA case the plaintiff must prove that other reasons the employer offers for the adverse employment action are mere pretext.

“That’s a very heavy burden of proof,” Bellace notes. “In real life, if an employer would like to push out an older worker, the employer’s [managers] would have to be idiots not to lay down some paper trail that suggests that there were some other reasons for dismissing the person. It’s even more difficult in a hiring case, because the plaintiff must prove that there was no other reason, except for age, that the employer preferred another candidate.”

Strategies for Boomer Longevity

For all of the challenges, though, baby boomers should hardly think of themselves as helpless.

Comportment matters. The stereotype of the “older worker not willing to learn new stuff, I think it’s fairly unfair,” says Bidwell. Still, he says, “it probably behooves older workers to go out of our way to demonstrate that we are keeping up, learning new things and so on. Obviously if you are seen as inflexible, unwilling to keep up, that is not going to be great for your longevity in the organization. You have to be prepared to leap on bandwagons.”

Mentoring and reverse-mentoring — older workers learning from younger ones — are highly valuable tools, says Julie Kantor, president and CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based mentoring consulting firm Twomentor. “Everything goes back to a company having a good culture, and part of a good culture is creating respectful systems with four or five generations in the workplace,” she notes. “If I were a baby boomer, I would want to learn what I can from millennials.”

Kantor thinks of these relationships as reciprocal. “I’ve yet to meet someone who has mentored who hasn’t gotten as much out of it as the person being mentored. If people are talking about what a great mentor, leader or adviser you are, it will increase your recognition in the company. That will increase your visibility. And you will learn by mentoring other generations about culture and diversity and about other perspectives.”

But there is a vast difference between asking an older employee to train a new one, and a culture that promotes mentoring on an ongoing basis. “If I am a baby boomer being replaced by a cheaper millennial, why would I want to give them my institutional knowledge?” says Bidwell. “On the other hand, it’s going to be very hard to transfer that knowledge. We talk about tacit and explicit knowledge, there are things you don’t know you know, and no matter how much you know you know you can’t really write it all down.” Traditionally the way employees have passed down knowledge is through apprenticeships and mentorships, having younger people work alongside older people for a fairly substantial period of time. That doesn’t happen much now, he says.

Creary urges keeping up with business peers and trends, which can be valuable as “non-formal, non-graded face-to-face delivery models that build community and build relationships. Who knows, it might give people who are baby boomers an opportunity to think about next steps. Never stop networking, even when you are senior vice president of marketing at a Fortune 500 company. It becomes really important to keep on doing the things that got you to where you are.”

Anything that adds value to a worker is a hedge when HR is sent out to meet a number by making cuts. Says Creary: “It’s very easy to attribute value to a salary because those numbers are hard and fast — a new entrant is making $60,000 a year and we are paying baby boomers two or three times that. So, the reality is, if we hire a younger person we are going to save on labor costs. But knowledge, institutional memory and efficiency also have a price attached to them, and it’s not so easy for every HR officer to realize the value of that. Organizations are, for better or worse, quantitatively oriented. And so, the larger question is, how do we attach value of that older person to the institution? I think that math needs to be done.”

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