Leading the 21st Century Workforce:
Part II: Understanding Boomers & Xers
Guest Blog Post by Kelle Corvin
In last week’s blog, I began a 3-part discussion on the generations in the workplace and the impact they are having on leadership. In this week’s blog, I want to discuss the two older generations currently in our 21st century workforce, the Boomers and Xers. As the two older generations, they share a few “overlaps” in common as to how they think, what has influenced their view of work, and what they bring to the workplace. In next week’s edition, we will cover our two younger generations: Millennials and iGens and examine them through the same three core areas. So, let’s begin!
Boomers are so named for the Baby Boom that occurred after World War II. In general terms, this was the generation born from 1945 to 1960. Many generational experts will define the parameters differently, but for our purposes, we are interested in those who would have turned 10 years of age in either the 1950s or 1960s. Most will define this generation by the transformative events that occurred that they remember such as Sputnik, the Kennedy Assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of television over radio, rock and roll music, the Korean War, etc. This generation was raised during a time of rapid expansion of the middle class and a generally prosperous childhood. Many describe this generation as “indulged” “entitled” “hardworking” “rebellious.” What is general about this group is that they challenged the norms of their day. They asked the unwanted questions about social, civic, and technological issues and created a new way, a different way of doing things.
Despite the “rebelliousness” of the generation, they settled down in their 20s and conformed to their father’s (and mother’s) world of sorts. They thought as their parents did – linearly. Compartmentalizing home from work; work task from work task; finishing one thing before the next. While they could see connections and patterns, their early development focused them on seeing the parts, but not always the whole. Tremendously hard-working, this generation coined the phrase “workaholic.” It was the first generation to see working moms as a norm as many young women had college degrees and wanted to “have it all.” The linear thinking of this generation created and integrated modern workflows in manufacturing and service industries.
The sheer size and tenure of Boomers in the workplace and in leadership roles, means they have a great deal of organizational and institutional knowledge. They have been part of the establishment of the modern workplace from Boomer Steve Jobs and the creation of the iPhone and personal computer technology to the generation having two U.S. Presidents ( Bill Clinton and George W. Bush), no generation since the Greatest Generation has had such a significant impact on society, business and culture.
The Xers, the younger cohort of the Boomers, were those born between 1961 and 1975. This is the smallest generation in size of the four in the workforce mainly because many of their parents (Silent born 1930-1944 or the Boomers) were more interested in cultivating careers than children. The birth rate in the U.S. alone dropped dramatically in the early 1960s as more an more women turned to birth control to manage family size and to allow them to pursue other occupations than motherhood. This generation turned 10 in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. Depending on their age, they remember the Moon Shot in 1969, being told not to watch the photos from Vietnam on the evening news, remember seeing a President resign from office, & the Bicentennial of the United States just to name a few.
This generation was self-sufficient from a very young age and are the reason the term “latch-key” children was coined in the 1970s. As a generation, they developed a very cynical view of government and of authority in the workplace. They entered work during a unsettled economy of the late 1970s to early 1980s where Boomers were already established in leadership roles. Despite their acceptance and embrace of new technology, they shared a more linear view of the workplace with their Boomer bosses. Where the Boomers made work THE priority, Xers became labeled by Boomers as “slackers” because they wanted to balance time with family with work. They saw the new technological developments of their adulthood as the best way to achieve work-family balance. Having lived as latch-key children, they didn’t want to do the same to their kids. Signs like “Baby on Board” telegraphed to the world that kids were important again.
Xers have achieved great technical and institutional knowledge throughout their career. They bring a more open mind to technology than Boomers and were often the young Turks that first pitched personal computers to their bosses in the late 1980s and 1990s. While they view the world more linearly than our newest generations, Xers have become the bridge generation between the true linear thinkers of old and the new holistic thinkers coming into the workplace. Xers have been the frustrated leaders. While they did successfully elect their first (and possibly their only) president in Barack Obama (born August 1961), they have seen their leadership opportunities limited by a Boomer generation that hangs on far beyond 65 years of age to leadership positions or forgo leadership opportunities because of their desire to balance family responsibilities with work.
These two generations possess tremendous knowledge in organizations both private and public. They understand the inner workings of departments and have the historical context of how various policies, decisions, systems evolved or were developed. Both generations will soon be gone from the workplace. Boomers are expected to be all but gone by 2025, while many older and middle-aged Xers have planned to exit upon retirement age to pursue other interests outside of their career. Organizations must develop knowledge transfer plans now to ensure that they are properly capturing that knowledge and transferring it to the people that will be leading their organizations in the future. Mentoring programs, knowledge transfer programs, and even exit interviews with individual employees upon retirement, are just a few ways that organizations can preserve the knowledge, history, and understanding of operations that have been developed by Boomers and Xers.
Next week, we will conclude this 3-part look at managing the 21st Century Workforce by looking at the future. Millennials (born 1976-1990) and iGens born 1991-2010. We will touch on how technology has significantly altered the thinking styles of these generations and tremendously influenced the two older generations in the workplace, and we will talk about how best to recruit, train and retain these generations based on how they view the world.
For more detailed information on this topic and generations in particular, please check out my detailed book list here.
Our Suggested Books on Generations
For further reading on each of these and other generations in America, below is a list of some of my favorites:
Generations: The History of America’s Future by William Strauss and Neil Howe
The Fourth Turning by Williams Strauss and Neil Howe
Generations at Work by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, & Bob Filipczak
Millennials Rising by Neil Howe
When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster
Gen Z Unfiltered by Tim Elmore
iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood by Jean M. Twenge, PhD
A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Share your books with us! Have you read a book on generations, thinking, leadership that we should know about? Please let Kelle know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will add it to our Leader’s Library!
Kelle Corvin is the Director of Business Development for Crisp Consulting Group. She has a background in public administration with more than 20 years of experience in the public and private sector. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from Kansas University and is certified in DISC, Motivators and Emotional Intelligence inventories. Kelle is passionate about understanding generations and how they contribute to the workplace. She would love to hear from you about this topic at email@example.com