Originally created 05/16/04

For Gen X owners, baby boomer employees represent a great opportunity



NEW YORK -- As the economy improves and companies hire more workers, many Generation X business owners are likely to find they're taking on and managing baby boomers.

This turnabout - after all, boomers have been managing Xers for quite some time - can be a real plus for a company because of boomers' work ethic and drive for fulfillment in their jobs.

Chip Bell, a partner in the management consultancy Performance Research Associates Inc. in Dallas, described Xers and boomers as coming from differing cultures, with divergent approaches to life and work.

"Boomers tend to be more optimistic, whereas younger employees, the Xers, tend to be more skeptical," Bell said. So for boomer workers, "providing a more upbeat environment, looking on the glass as half full rather than half empty, is going to be important to them."

Boomers want their work ethic acknowledged, Bell said, and so they might need more feedback than younger workers. Telling a boomer, "I wish we had more folks like you with that drive and determination" is likely to be appreciated.

But that doesn't mean that boomers are necessarily high-maintenance. In fact, chances are the boomer you hire will be a hard worker. Bell noted that boomers work so well independently that bosses are likely to find that once the goals and parameters of a job or project are explained, the boomer employee will work well on his or her own.

"Boomers are willing to forgo things in life to get a job done. They'll do whatever needs to be done," Bell said. They've never placed the same premium on leisure time as many Generation Xers do, so they won't be daunted by a task that requires extra time or effort, he said.

Xers' different approach to work and leisure has often caused friction between them and their boomer bosses. But "in many ways, the Xers will find it easier to manager boomers than boomers found it was to manage Xers," said Leigh Branham, owner of Keeping The People Inc., an Overland Park, Kan., human resources consulting firm.

In many companies, it's likely that owners will encounter the same tensions between younger managers and older employees that have arisen in past generations. It can be hard, in this case, for a boomer to report to and take orders from someone younger.

The solution, Branham said, is to respect that an older worker has experience and knowledge to offer - and to use those attributes to help the business. He recalled being a lieutenant in the Army in Vietnam, working with a sergeant with 30 years of experience in the service.

Even though Branham outranked him, "you didn't go ordering that sergeant around," he said.

Sometimes an older worker doesn't seem productive enough - again, not a boomer/Xer problem, but one that employers have long had to deal with. It might be a matter of burnout, or of bosses not giving these employees the attention and challenges they need.

"We sort of dismiss them, while with the younger worker, we put a lot of energy into developing them for the future," Branham said. "The problem is not making an effort to re-engage these people, to sit with them and ask, 'What do you want to do with the rest of your career?"'

The answer is, again, to work with the boomer's quest for self-fulfillment, Branham said.

Questions like: "How can I help keep you interested and challenged here?" or invitations like "I would welcome you to mentor me in some of the things I'm working on" will go a long way to help an employee feel valued, and hopefully more motivated.