A millennial’s guide to baby boomers

  • October 20, 2016
  • James Careless

By and large, Canada’s millennials were raised and educated by baby boomers who encouraged them to ask questions and speak their minds; to value time spent on recreation and relationships as much as they do their careers, and to rely on adults to serve as mentors and nurturers as they grew up.

Raised with this world view, many millennials lawyers are frankly perplexed by the boomer-run world they find themselves in. “We find ourselves scratching our heads about some of the boomers we work with,” said Julie Wong, manager of Human Resources at the Toronto law firm Minden Gross. “Boomers don’t like to be questioned or hear other opinions than their own; expect policies and rules to be followed even when they are counter-productive to the firm’s interests, and are terribly slow about answering their emails.”

The cause of this disconnect is a very real generation gap. Here is a millennial’s guide to understanding boomers.

Boomers come from a different world

Imagine a world with no internet, no smartphones, and no instant connection to friends and family. Your TV set only receives a handful of over-the-air channels – if you live near the U.S. border you might get American channels and if you’re in the city you might get cable – and if you miss your favourite show you’re out of luck, because there are no VCRs. Your house probably has only one telephone, wired in place for everyone to share. If you somehow manage to shoot a selfie on your camera, you have to take the film to the store to have it developed and printed, which costs money and can take a week.

This is the world that the baby boomers grew up in: one where schools did not encourage speaking up in class and bad students could be hit with leather straps. When some of these boomers joined their first law firms, they were expected to be seen and not heard – and that’s what they did to get ahead.

“As a junior, your job was to do as you were told, work as late as you had to to get the job done, and focus on learning the picayune, petty technical tasks that went with being a new lawyer,” said Dal Bhathal. She is a managing partner with The Counsel Network; a legal recruiting firm with offices across Canada. “The process of going through a lot of grunt work was what was known as ‘paying your dues’.”

Paying dues was an unavoidable stage in the early legal careers of boomer lawyers – it wasn’t that they didn’t start out wanting the things millennials want, it’s that they were taught not to expect them. “Now that the boomers are in charge, they expect the millennials to pay their own dues,” Bhathal explained. “They can resent the fact that millennials seem to expect to rewarding, well-compensated work from their first day on the job!”

Don’t speak back to your elders

It may seem counter-intuitive that the boomers who raised the millennials to speak up now get annoyed when their younger employees actually do so. The reason for this contradiction can be explained by the tradition-bound culture that boomers conformed to in law firms when they were young and uphold now that they are in power.

“The problem is that boomers really are not comfortable with being told ‘no’ by their subordinates, even if that ‘no’ is both reasonable and justified,” said Warren Bongard, the president and co-founder of ZSA Legal Recruitment in Toronto. “For millennials, this attitude can pose a real problem.”

One step removed from a flashing 12:00

Millennials should remember that many boomers used to own VCRs that flashed “12:00" on their displays, because the boomers couldn’t figure out how to program them. This same generation doesn’t always understand email and text messages, let alone the latest social media platforms and the smartphones that support them.

“Even when they are comfortable with new technology, boomers far prefer to communicate face-to-face or by voice over the phone than by text,” Bongard said. “In fact, boomers see email and text as being somewhat backwards: Why would you write text to people at a distance when you can speak with them in person?”

How to cope effectively with boomers

The points covered so far explain why boomers are different from millennials in their attitudes. So how can millennials use this understanding to their entire law firm’s advantage?

  • Pay their dues – Smart millennial lawyers can cope by cheerfully going the distance to finish up pressing projects on time – even if this means working late from time to time – and doing grunt work without complaint. “Given that all of your millennial cohorts won’t likely follow this lead, you will stand out from the crowd and impress your boomer bosses,” said Bhathal.
  • Approach with respect – Discretion is the key to speaking back to boomer bosses. Ask permission to share an opinion. If it is granted, express your views politely and with due respect. “You can speak your mind with your boomer boss if you do it properly,” said Bongard. “But timing, style, and approach is everything.”
  • Ask first – If a millennial does need to buttonhole a boomer, asking permission to walk along with them and do so while they are going to lunch or to grab a coffee can be an acceptable tactic. “But again, ask first,” Bhathal advised. “In particular, if you want a boomer’s assistance in advancing your career, you have to win their support – you can’t expect it, nor act entitled to it.”
  • Face-time the old-school way – Communicate face-to-face or by phone if at all possible, and whatever you do, do not denigrate boomers for their lack of technical prowess. “When you do communicate, be polite without being obsequious,” said Bongard. “And rather than get frustrated when they don’t answer your emails quickly; be patient.”

The bottom line: baby boomers can be dealt with, as long as millennials respect their cultural differences and adjust to them accordingly. This is important today while the boomers are in charge, and will continue to be important in the years ahead when the millennials inevitably rise to power.                     

James Careless is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink