Tackling Intergenerational Management or what to do with someone in your office who has never seen Animal House

Will Manuel

Article by Will Manuel Featured Author


One of the hot management topics on the interwebs these days is a discussion of how to manage the latest incoming generation of workers known as “millenials.” While most of the talk appears to focus on just these younger employees, there actually are several generations currently occupying office space together that have very differing characteristics. As lawyers, we definitely see some of these changes across ages and how they may affect our daily lives. It must be noted that the descriptions of generations in this note are based only on measurable trends seen in interviews with workers. They also may appear somewhat stereotypical. However, an evaluation of these groupings may help in how we communicate among the age groups.

Sociologists categorize the current workforce into four major collections according to birthdate: Traditionalists (born from 1925 to 1942); Baby Boomers (born from 1943 to 1966); Generation X (born from 1966 to 1980) and Millenials (born from 1980 to early 2000s). The Traditionalists, while almost 44 million in number, are not as active in today’s legal landscape. The two largest groups present in law firms today are the Baby Boomers (80 million) and the Millenials (92 million). Crammed in between those is Generation X at 46 million. This note will focus on the those three generations.

One of the big characteristics for Baby Boomers is the fact that they are retiring out of the workplace at an alarming rate. 70 to 80 million of them will exit the workplace in the next decade. This is significant due to the fact that they currently constitute a large majority of legal leadership roles. For Baby Boomers, their main influences were Vietnam, Watergate, and protests for civil justice. Based on these influences, they are idealistic, individualistic and competitive. In the workplace, they believe in paying their dues and moving up the ladder.

For Generation X, they realize that they will be taking the mantle from the Boomers, and it weighs heavy on them. Major influences on Generation X are television and communication technology. They are the first generation to be greatly affected by the rise in divorce rates which resulted in many becoming “latch-key kids.” This makes them much more self-reliant, but skeptical and distrustful of institutions. Another huge characteristic in the workplace is their desire for more focus on family time. Generation X seeks a fun and meaningful work environment.

Millenials are the new kids on the block — literally. Truthful or not, they have received a reputation of being tough to manage. Major influences on millenials are hand-held technology, social media, acceptance of diversity, and “helicopter” parents. Millenials are extremely comfortable with technology and can quickly absorb and organize information. They have a strong belief in self-expression, but also want extreme flexibility in their work environments.

Connecting between these very different generations may seem a difficult task, but in reality, the differences may provide a way to make your workplace more enjoyable and productive. One of the first things to look at is what are the expectations on communications. The younger generations are comfortable with electronic messages being the primary source, but Baby Boomers may want more face to face interaction. Teams in the legal community should discuss appropriate response times and how work is handled, from a communication standpoint. Another helpful way to bridge the gaps between generations is the use of mentoring. This practice can be helpful for both the older and younger part of the relationship — younger workers like to be included and older workers will benefit in learning new shortcuts through technology. Finally, some of the best ways to approach intergenerational management is to just employ the tenets of a good workplace: treat co-workers with respect; recognize that people process information differently; welcome new ideas; and don’t be afraid to have fun in the office.