Managing Baby Boomers

By Mills, D. Quinn; Cannon, Mark D. et al. | Management Review, August 1989 | Go to article overview

Managing Baby Boomers


Mills, D. Quinn, Cannon, Mark D., Cook, Mary, Management Review


Managing Baby Boomers

Executives caught in the fray of managing a younger generation often feel angry and confused. They aren't the only ones. Younger employees who can't understand the more senior employees' unquestioning commitment to their jobs experience similar tensions. Such misunderstandings are fairly common today, and they are rooted in fundamental value differences between the two groups that are not going to disappear. Since baby boomers (as defined in this article as those born between 1946 and 1966) make up more than half of the American labor force, older executives must learn how to defuse these misunderstandings if they want to maintain smooth relations in today's workplace.

Recent surveys indicate baby boomers' values are distinctly different from those of their parents. First, 136 managers at Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program were surveyed in 1985 for their value orientations. In-depth telephone interviews with 153 randomly selected baby boomers (age 20 to 40) followed in an effort to further explore their values and lifestyles.

Then, a 1988 survey of more than 1,000 baby boomers and older employees within the same organizations provided additional insights into the implications of value differences for managers. These surveys show that value systems aren't something baby boomers will outgrow.

Their values remain constant in the midst of major life transitions, such as entering the workforce, marrying and raising a family. Their values dictate a new approach to careers, relationships and life in general. Misunderstandings over these differences in the workplace result in conflict, poor performance and even the resignation of talented young recruits. By exploring and understanding baby boomers' values, organizations can minimize conflict and maximize baby boomers' job performance.

Once managers understand the younger generation's value system, they can adapt their management styles in ways that will motivate baby boomers more effectively. Such modifications include continuously providing challenge and variety on the job, treating baby boomers as professionals, creating individually oriented reward systems, providing opportunities for boomers to develop relationships in the workplace and developing a more participative management style.

WHERE VALUES CLASH

Baby boomers have witnessed relative economic prosperity, giving them a sense of financial well-being; in contrast, their parents developed a lack of faith in the economy and a feeling of financial insecurity thanks, for the most part, to the ravages of the Great Depression. The general unpopularity of the Vietnam War and disillusionment about the government's hidden entanglements destroyed baby boomers' trust in government and institutions; on the other hand, feelings of moral superiority and patriotism associated with World War II caused their parents to trust government and institutions.

Although the boomers see themselves as unique individuals, they tend to share a number of values as a group that contrast significantly with those of the previous generation. Baby boomers also differ from their parents in their dedication to defining their personal values and living in accordance with them.

* Experiences versus possessions. In contrast to their parents, boomers tend to feel that having interesting experiences is more valuable than accumulating material possessions or advancing up the corporate ladder. When asked, "What is the most important thing in life next to your family?" baby boomers gave personal development as the most frequent response (47 percent). Boomers are concerned with personal development and see experiences as a means of broadening themselves. Experiences and challenges, they believe, make the person. When boomers get together, they are more likely to exchange stories about what they've done--from travel to drugs, from relationships to jobs--than talk about the cars, homes, art, swimming pools or stereo systems they own. …

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