We’ve read the reports, the ones that describe the four generations – X, Y, Millennials and Boomers – under the same corporate roof. We’ve been warned the Boomers are about to retire, that brain drain will ensue as a result, that the younger generations are ill prepared to lead. We’ve also heard the opposite, that age has rendered Boomers irrelevant. How much of this is true and how much supposition remains to be seen, but two things are certain. Boomers continue to hold authority, and they aren’t going away as quickly as we thought.
A study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) reveals that younger generations aren’t really challenging authority as much as assumed. Lead author Jennifer Deal said, “We found that Millennials are more likely to defer to their managers, whereas older respondents are more interested in having their leaders give them fewer directives. Younger employees may feel if their manager asks them to do something, they’d better do it.”
The implications are that younger people still look to older people for direction, not necessarily because we live in a culture that respects seniors, but because traditionally, we are accustomed to taking orders from the older generation. (A younger employee could see an older one as a parental figure to be listened to, for example). Additionally, in a tough economy, there could be the fear that rebelling might result in unemployment.
Couple the above dynamic with that of Boomer as mentor. Managers with experience who engage younger generations and respect them enough to teach them by example have been hugely successful in maintaining a position of authority. As one Gen-xer said, “I work with a lot of older people who know so much, no one in their right mind would let them go.”
Depending on the arena, there also seems to be some room for acknowledging age difference and making accommodations. One women in her fifties said, “I think as we get older, our brains start to work differently. I worked with a guy who was beyond retirement age and we always asked, ‘Does anyone have anything for Steve?’ We knew if we gave him certain tasks, he would produce, but they were different tasks from those he would do when he was younger. That’s just part of getting older.”
The economy is also a driving factor in Boomers choosing to stick around in the workplace. Social Security is not enough to live on, pensions are less common and the American tradition of saving less and spending more are forces aging workers face. Many Boomers are choosing to retire from one job only to return as contractors. Or some are retiring and moving on to other companies, perhaps to work in a less stressful environment.
All this is not to say Boomers do not have age-related challenges. It is to say that dismissing Boomers as no longer relevant is a logical error. Boomers clearly still have a place in the work world and in leadership. What that place is largely depends on the individual and the industry.