Us and Them: A Critical Perspective on Generational Differences in the Workplace

By: Wendy Merrill

I recently attended a women's leadership conference where a speaker addressing the crowd on emotional intelligence commented on the difference between Baby Boomers' and younger generations' views on workplace expectations. She--a Gen Xer--recounted the time when she was in her early 20's and lamented to her father about her boss' nasty disposition. She said that her father told her to "suck it up" and that she was "lucky to have a job", that bad bosses were just part of the reality of the working world. She contrasted this anecdote with an example of what she was prepared to tell her daughter once she entered the workforce. She said that if her daughter ever called her to complain about a "mean boss" she would encourage her to resign, in order to be happy. She went on to say that she disagreed with the common view that Millennials are ego-centric and entitled. Instead, she said, this generation is the first to be "in touch with their feelings and to have a real sense of self-worth". This comment solicited a few nods from the audience but I found myself taken aback by how black and white her argument was.

Early in my career I had to suffer many terrible bosses. In the financial services sector abusive managers are legion and I worked for a bunch of them. That said, as uncomfortable as many of these situations were, eventually I was able to emerge a much stronger, more emotionally intelligent leader myself. In each instance I moved on to "greener pastures", but only after I was able to gain valuable skills from each opportunity. The most valuable takeaway from each experience of modern indentured servitude? A broader perspective accompanied by a thicker skin. Two invaluable skills essential for the road to success.

I tend to take a maternalistic approach to management. This is a form of mentoring designed to instill self-confidence, self-reliance, healthy risk taking and creative thinking. During my tenure as a CEO of an insurance firm, I managed quite a few Millennial employees. I saw what I thought was promise in each one. They all expressed a desire to succeed...to grow and take on the world. I invested countless hours in each one of them, providing them with whatever support and guidance they needed.

Sadly, each one of them exhibited a gross absence of professionalism as well as an unwillingness to pay their dues and face risk. As part of my commitment to their professional development I sat down with each one and told them that I would support them in any career path they chose to take within the business. I even told them that if they wanted to make more money than me I would have done everything within my power to help them realize their dream...and I backed up my promise with constant efforts designed to "put my money where my mouth was", literally. Each one of them eventually quit by way of email or text. Not one of them confronted me in person or submitted a formal letter of resignation. They all went on to other positions and over the last 3 years each one has had an average of 4 different jobs since leaving my employ. My experience tells me that these employees (who ranged in age from 26--32) definitely did not possess a genuine sense of self-worth. Call it entitlement or professional wanderlust--something prevented these 5 individuals from investing in their career even in the presence of a supportive boss, and I would not identify it as high self-esteem or a sense of worth.

To be clear, I am not advocating for anyone to submit themselves to an abusive situation. There are plenty of managers who create insufferable work environments where no employee should stick around. Nevertheless, character-building is the foundation of any great career and we must sometimes endure tough challenges to earn the stripes that will lead us to advancement. At the risk of sounding a bit soap-boxy, I feel that it should not fall totally upon older generations to embrace and cater to the whims of younger generations. And in the same vein, archaic practices should not be force-fed to younger employees in order to preserve the status quo. Evolution is inevitable, but successful execution requires not only the engagement of a meaningful dialogue between the two camps, but the construction of a strong and resilient bridge between them as well.

Wendy Merrill is Chief Rainmaker and Founder of StrategyHorse Consulting Group, a strategic business development consulting firm. She specializes in working with firms struggling to "pass the leadership torch" by empowering future leaders to accomplish smart growth. To learn more, please visit: www.strategyhorse.com