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Baby Boomers vs. Millennials: Merging Cultures

Oct. 9, 2019
Boomers aren’t quite walking out the door yet, while millennials are in and looking for the next opportunity. How do we bridge the culture gap of these two groups?

There are many ways to build a bridge. Charles A. Ellis, leader in design and construction supervision over the Golden Gate Bridge, used scuba divers to construct the south tower structures over 1,100 feet from the San Francisco shore. The famous stone Rialto Bridge in Venice, designed by Antonio da Ponte in 1591, is held up by 12,000 wooden pilings that shouldered firing cannons from the 1797 riots. With a few thick ropes and planks from the hardware store, two or three weekends of work could yield your own creation. One thing is for sure, though: A bridge can only be built when you have support from both sides.

The cultural chasm between baby boomers and millennials in the manufacturing workplace can be canyon-sized. The difference between the oldest baby boomers and the youngest millennials is 50 years, and there’s more to it than whether the first flip phone came out when you were in diapers or dress shirts.

How do you build a bridge across this cultural divide?

It can be done, with techniques that range from more useful onboarding to developing a pipeline to share useful knowledge and data, to becoming more open with knowledge-sharing. The following ideas will help get you started.

Transferring Tribal Knowledge

One thing that stands out with the boomer generation is its decades of manufacturing excellence. Those who have worked the longest hold a great depth of knowledge as a result of their enormous experience, things that younger generations may not be able to easily pick up or access.

Transferring this tribal knowledge can be a “great challenge,” says Mark Rayfield, CEO of Saint-Gobain North America. To give new recruits a foundation and prepare them for leadership, the construction products* manufacturer launched a program called Essentials of Manufacturing. During their two years in the program, employees receive one-on-one mentoring from senior executives, learn more about the sprawling company, with operations in 68 countries, and hone their entrepreneurial acumen in an innovation challenge.

Through the program, wrote Rayfield in an email, “we work to give them many skills across departments to ultimately break down silos and encourage them to embrace more cross-functional roles.”

Rayfield advocates for hands-on learning and experience to transfer knowledge. But what does it mean to be hands-on? Lindsey Pollak, a consultant on millennial issues for the likes of General Electric Co. and Estee Lauder and author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, has plenty to suggest.

“I definitely support traditional mentoring, as well as the apprenticeship model that's quickly growing here in the United States,” she says. “Show your younger workers their opportunities; bring a millennial to an executive meeting … invite them into a day in your life. If anything, encourage younger people to be curious, to ask questions. It is part of their job to be curious.”

Sometimes technology can bridge the knowledge gap. At aerospace manufacturer Airbus, Mark Lind—senior vice president of strategy for industrial application firm Aras—noticed that a great deal of highly skilled individuals who had been working on their planes for decades still kept the “how-to” primarily up in their heads. Any information that was recorded through older information systems was hard to locate, transfer and share between divisions and departments. Using Aras’ software platform, they were able to clone the old system and tie it into a product lifecycle management (PLM) backbone that organized recorded data to make it easier to access intuitively, “giving new people something that feels modern ... without forcing something new onto the older workers.”

“There’s not always going to be a ‘graybeard’ you can go over to and ask how this works,” notes Lind. After working with multiple manufacturing companies, Lind and his company look less to the ‘today’ and more to the ‘tomorrow’ of information transmission from boomers to millennials.

Lind’s work with automaker General Motors highlights just how complicated things can get with knowledge sharing: “Not only is there a workforce transformation; simultaneously the complexity of products being manufactured is skyrocketing. Nowadays, a car is made with over 10,000 parts; there’s over a million pieces of software code that’s put into it. The systems used to manage these cars are growing more and more sophisticated.”

By layering a PLM over the existing system, Lind says, “Now there’s data that's not just to look at but is actionable.” This reframing of data is critical for millennial learners, he adds, most of whom have grown up using technology as a primary means of research.

Recording and simplifying a baby boomer’s experiential knowledge in a way that is continuously accessible for future generations opens limitless doors down the line. “It's all about creating this kind of greenhouse where information can grow,” Lind says, focusing on the long-term. “Once we adapt the way people interact with technology, it satisfies both generations.”

Reverse Mentoring

Between all the nicknames, opinion pieces and punchlines, one might assume the millennial generation is actually a collection of the most irritating Facebook friends that you can’t seem to leave on mute. Manufacturers know better than anyone that their workplace environment has no time for whining. How, then, are they expected to pull good apples out of a bad barrel?

Perhaps the first step is to understand that this is not the barrel we are looking at. “Most people have this premise that millennials are somewhere between 15 to 20, when actually, the oldest millennials will be turning 40 in a few months,” says Robert Teachout, legal editor at XpertHR, a human resources intelligence firm.

Teachout argues that we need to reframe the way we look at millennial involvement.

“The common problem is people painting these broad-brush pictures of the millennial generation ... (It’s) largely the media’s fault—there was initial conflict, yes, but at this point millennials have made their contributions. They’re tired of hearing they haven't," Teachout says. “(The stereotype) isn’t any more real than people want to make it real. Manage the individual, not the stereotype.”

The millennial generation, viewed through a clearer lens, is not an antagonist to older generations. In fact, they can learn to be excellent leaders through a simple flip of the script—becoming teachers to the people who taught them.

“One great example I like to bring up of reverse mentoring is Jack Welch, who was really the pioneer of the concept while working at GE,” says Pollak. “He had this team of 500 corporate leaders, all older, and realized that they all needed to better understand the internet. So, he brought in the company’s youngest employees and paired the leaders up, himself included. What’s really important is he made sure to label the employees as ‘mentors’ as opposed to something like ‘aides’ or ‘helpers,’ because it really validated and intensified the relationships that were going on.”

“The great thing about mentoring is it’s engaging for both workers,” she adds. “It’s not just sitting and getting coffee together, its actionable.”

Generally speaking, reverse mentoring is an excellent method of creating balance between millennials entering the workforce and their baby boomer bosses. Of course, it's important to note the necessary exchange that occurs when both generations are leveled eye-to-eye: respect.

“Millennials can really work with the realization that there’s a different mantra for what work means from the viewpoint of the older generation,” says Delphia L. Howze, a human resources consultant who has worked in diversity and inclusion at Penske and Strategic Energy.

“The baby boomer generation really created the 40-hour workweek; they were the first to instill work as a badge of honor,” she says. “Millennials definitely have a different mindset, where for them, work is necessary to live, but separate from life. It would be helpful for them to understand the level of hard work boomers have put in, how much recognition and reputation goes into it. From that they may learn to be more effective in their own roles.”

The best way to manage this? “Get them in a room together,” Howze says. “Create a space specifically for consistent connection and dialogue, where cross-collaborative teams can form ... Training employees to get along is not just a one-shot wonder. There has to be a strategic process in place, with continued follow-up.”

“Implement monthly one-on-ones,” chimes in business strategist Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. “One where I coach you, one where you coach me. Create balance that way.”

Building Resiliency

Unfortunately, for every new leader you keep, a dozen more may walk out the door. Manufacturing could fall prey to millennial turnover despite all measures to make it cease … unless you start solving problems by asking a different question.

“The question is not, ‘How do I reduce turnover for young people in my company?’ That's not going to work,” explains Davey. “It’s ‘how do I make my company more resilient in the face of these high turnover rates.’”

“Your goal is not to make these millennials into loyal boomers,” Davey adds. “Your goal is to move the needle from one year of employment to three or four."

She explains the benefit to this approach as a long-term measure: “Risk turning some people off to the job for the chance that you will turn the right people on to it.”

For those already on the job, Davey encourages managers to take action. “Millennials are used to this exciting cyclicality of life; sometimes they switch jobs to mimic that feeling of change in life … Give these employees project-based work, something where they can do a mental ‘sprint’ of sorts. It’ll be stimulating and give them that sense of accomplishment when its finished.”

Millennials have the potential to lead some of the world’s largest corporations within a matter of years. They have something to offer ... and it’s not just a list of complaints.

“Personally,” Rayfield wrote, “I can say that the willingness of our millennial employees at Saint-Gobain to speak their mind, let me know the impact of our actions, and hold us accountable for a vision that aligns with their beliefs has made me a better ‘boomer,’ and I believe has made our decisions and strategy better.”

Matt Skwierawski, vice president of operations at Winona, Minnesota-based metal container manufacturer Behrens Manufacturing Co., relays an important message for all generations to consider: “There’s a proper balance to the millennial outlook, that work-life balance, that's good for us old-timers to learn from. That's the kind of thing that reminds us what we’re working for.”

Meeting in the Middle

Intergenerational communication can also help a business grow, says Pollak. “If you’re making a product, you want to understand who you’re marketing to. You want your company to be filled with people who not only best understand and can connect with that demographic, but also a large variety of people who can approach it from different angles. That’s where it’s important to have intergenerational communication and teamwork.”

Her insights focus on building an entire workplace dedicated to success by blending the best of both worlds. “I titled my book The Remix because that’s exactly how I look at blending generations in the workplace: you take a classic, not to say that the classic was in any way bad, but you add some more modern and different elements to it, and you get something that works really well, too.”

Skwierawski agrees. “The best thing we can do is to establish our core values, like integrity and excellence. We have to build up the people because people are our greatest asset," he says. “It’s all about people coming together, calling it a company. There’s always something that someone else is going to do better than you, but that's okay, because we’re a team.”

Cooperation is not always an easy task to check off. No one builds a bridge without a bit of elbow grease. Patience is a necessity, not only for bridge-building, but for building all things, especially those that will matter the most in years to come. A cross-generational workplace rich in dialogue and technology is a company profit worth fighting for. Now is the time to begin building bridges, one by one, investing in generations as a part of a greater picture of which we must simply connect the dots.

*The company description has been corrected.

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