For well over a decade, I have been talking about bridging the generational gap in the workplace. I have delivered keynote presentations, written countless articles, coached leaders, written a book, and led hundreds of conversations about how Boomers, Xers, Millennials and now Zers can play nicely together in the sandbox.
I’m disappointed to report that the generational diplomacy needle hasn’t moved much.
A Generational Reality Check
I graduated college in 1994, the same year the film “Reality Bites” came out. This movie, along with “Singles” (1992), was supposedly the anthem of Generation X. (Great soundtracks, by the way.) The storylines are the same — a bleak outlook on the lack of career opportunities and sad tales of unrequited love — and certainly do not paint my generation in a positive light. According to Hollywood, we were all facing various existential crises and living off our parents’ gas cards.
The day after graduating, I moved to New York City with two friends. We had low-paying jobs with terrible bosses but were happy to be able to afford our shared one-bedroom apartment. We felt we were exactly where we should be in our early 20s. While portrayed as lost souls, most of us were focused on establishing ourselves in the world. Hollywood’s poetic license provided for entertainment but didn’t accurately represent Gen X.
The same is true for Millennials — the infamous, cringe-inducing epithet that has haunted this generation of professionals over the past 20 years. When these folks graduated college and entered the workforce, they were known as the “trophy for everyone” generation. They dealt with gross assumptions of entitlement and a poor work ethic, and in them, Boomers and older Xers found a convenient scapegoat for anything that went wrong with their businesses.
The truth is, this generation is no more entitled than any other. There are whiny primadonnas in every generation. Millennials are not lazy; they just think differently. And, just like every generation, they have had their own challenges, motivations and struggles in finding their footing in society.
In 2023, Millennials are in leadership positions: managing partners, senior litigators, executive committee members and client decision-makers. It’s time that Boomers and Xers quit the eye-rolling and focus on improving multi-generational relationships within their firms and among their clients. In the last year alone, I’ve participated in seminars, webinars, discussion groups, firm retreats and partner conversations where the phrase “work-life balance” was mostly mentioned with ubiquitous air quotes. Incidentally, many of these discussions concerned improving firm culture or succession planning — not exactly needle-moving.
Now that more law firms seem focused on best business practices — planning their future, improving profitability, attracting and retaining talent, and elevating their brand — it’s time to shrink, if not close, the perceived generational gaps. Left unchecked, generational friction can undermine your firm’s best plans and weaken its foundation.
The Thirst Analogy
The first step in reducing generational friction is to take the time to understand some basic differences in work style, motivation and support needs. As long as several generations work together, each would benefit from understanding how the others work.
I’ve found the easiest way to break down the management styles and support needs of Boomers, Xers, and Millennials is through this thirst analogy:
Anyone who has suffered extreme dehydration knows how dangerous it is. The strangest and scariest part is the fact that severe dehydration robs us of our sense of thirst. When we’re not thirsty, we don’t drink, and this worsens the condition.
When it comes to management, Baby Boomers are perpetually dehydrated. In other words, because they are not “thirsty” for feedback, guidance or support, it doesn’t occur to them that others may need a steady source of hydration.
Even though Gen Xers are relatively independent and usually able to quench their thirst, we may need direction in terms of where we can find a drink. This means Xers appreciate an offer of a drink, and we thrive when shown where the water cooler is located.
Millennials are often parched and can have difficulty sating their thirst on their own. They will thrive when managers and seniors anticipate their thirst and proactively provide a consistent source of hydration.
Stop Generational Friction With Open Communication
If super-dehydrated Boomers are never thirsty (they’ve survived this long without water), how can they effectively address the needs of Xer colleagues who need directions to the water cooler (mentoring and support)?
And how can they provide consistent hydration (guidance, creation of safe spaces, explicit expectations) to the parched Millennials who need them to anticipate their needs to stave off dehydration (frustration, failure, or quitting)?
The most effective way for law firms to reduce generational friction is to improve multi-generational empathy and encourage open communication between colleagues. More seasoned partners should not chalk up their younger colleagues’ differing work styles to apathy or entitlement, and younger associates and junior partners should advocate for what they need to support their individual and collective success.
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