The Savvy Baby Boomer's Guide To Working With Gen Y

By Christine Giordano
October 31, 2012

One thing is for sure: The world is listening to the tune that Gen Y whistles. If you're an employee (or employer) who is used to resting on the laurels of past accomplishments, you may need to rethink things to survive the new workplace.

Actually, a few small tweaks to your philosophy may make all the difference for thriving in the Gen Y world.

Let's face it, Gen Ys have made their mark when it comes to being innovative: Facebook, Pinterest, mobile apps, etc. They're tech-savvy, know how to multitask and have grown up with the Internet. Businesses look to them for innovation, which means you may now have a boss who is 10 years younger than you, who is updating company policy on cloud storage or through podcasts.

Gen Ys also have the numbers. The U.S. has scrambled to meet the demands of the immense impact of 79 million baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who created trends within the marketplace at every stage of their lives with their influential buying power. But Gen Y (born roughly between 1977 to 1994) is close behind -- with 75 million. (Generations' years vary depending on the source.) Considering that both marital partners tend to work these days, estimates say Gen Y will far outnumber any other workplace generation, comprising more than 40% of the U.S. workforce by 2020, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their annual spending power already exceeds $200 billion.

"This year they'll generate $214 billion in earned income... by the year 2017, just five years down the road, Gen Y will outspend baby boomers," said Dan Miller, business consultant, baby boomer and co-author of "Wisdom Meets Passion: When Generations Collide and Collaborate." "They're going to bypass them, so everybody's paying attention. We'd better learn how to get along with them and to work with them."

That aside, there are things you need to know as the baby boomer in the group in order to fit into the new corporate culture.

1. Results, not laurels: Focus on your skills and your contributions. In the past, it was at least a 9-to-5 office, and the person who stayed in the office the longest was thought to work the hardest. But there's been a shift toward results-oriented workplaces. Accomplishments are often measured digitally: through goal setting, digital tracking and time management software, which means people can't just hide and daydream in their cubicles. Gen Y may look like they're lounging around, but they're known for working at midnight and other odd hours when their genius strikes. Stay ahead of the game by contributing.

"Now in a results-only work environment, it's, 'What's your contribution? What is your skill set that you're known for?'  It's not what you did in the past. And that's very scary to a baby boomer," said generational business consultant (and baby boomer) Brad Szollose, author of "Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia," who now gets 30% of his business through social media. "The people who have been hiding in the cubicle for years, who've been trying to coast without being seen, who make it look like they're working hard because they stay late -- you can discover very quickly they're not really your best workers."

2. Understand that you are a brand: As soon as you leave a job interview, your interviewer is probably going to Google you, look on your Facebook page, your Twitter, blogs and LinkedIn. They'll be wondering, "Are you creative? Do you have a blog? Are you saying and walking the talk?" Szollose said. Ask yourself: How can I stand out in this new hyper-connected world?

3. Blog about your expertise: One of Szollose's clients was up for a job as a chemistry teacher. "And I said, 'Start a blog on chemistry. Start talking about the chemists that you admired and some of the work that they're doing. Also, you're a soccer coach with your son. Have a few things about that so they get to know you personally a little bit,'" he advised. "They need to see a snapshot of the individual when they leave the office."

This is your opportunity to provide it. Tips: Never blog angrily, avoid controversy, keep it positive and on a professional topic, talk about things you admire, blog at least once a week, use photos and connect it to a fan page on Facebook and a Twitter account, Szollose said.

"By the time you have 10 or 15 blog entries, you're already showing up in Google Analytics."

4. Mobile is king: "There's been a 90% increase in cell phone mobile commerce, but a lot of the boomers are thinking, 'The economy is dead,'" Szollose said. There has definitely been a shift to cellular commerce. Recognize it, embrace it and learn the new marketplace. And don't make a fool of yourself during company meetings.

"If you don't know that it's affecting your business, you're going to (suggest building more) stores and those stores are going to be empty for a long time," he said. Take note of "technology that is going to be used for shopping, for shifting your communication and for speeding up your day-to-day activity."

Also realize your boss' clients want to connect with their customers via mobile technology. They no longer want to fund fancy offices and high overhead.

5. Establish a two-way mentoring, not dictating, relationship: The workplace is now a level playing field because Gen Y is considered a big contributor. Establish a mutual mentoring relationship between Gen Y and yourself because you've both got much to learn from each other. Gen Y loves to contribute; allow them to be heard. But they also may be hotshot salespeople unable to close a deal. It's your job to make them feel nurtured and valued, not browbeaten.

"I like to propose something called reverse mentorship," Szollose said. "This is where, instead of standing there and mentoring to the younger group, you reverse it and you start listening and allowing the younger groups to mentor you. The purpose of this is to pick up on new technology, new methodologies for working and new training ideologies."

The Investing Answer: A great way to start the conversation cross-generationally is to hold a casual brainstorming meeting at one of the places Gen Y loves to go -- such as a coffee shop -- and discuss how to make the company more effective. Let Gen Y know it's ok to "talk above your level of understanding" about technology in order to put together a plan and perhaps even a task force. Easy, encouraging conversation is a good way to help Generation Y offer up opinions. After all, boomers are often the parents of Generation Y, and these tech-savvy offspring are known to get along with your age group the best. Then, don't be afraid to open the floor to topics they may be curious about, or have them suggest internal and external training classes that may be helpful.