10. Managing Boomers, Xers, and Silents

A recent Ernst & Young survey found that 72% of respondents expressed general discomfort with younger managers supervising older employees.1 If you are a manager, then almost certainly you will be managing employees who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s. If you are a Millennial, then an older worker could be a Gen Xer, a Baby Boomer, or a member of the Silent generation. Each of these generations has different needs and goals.

Younger supervisors might be afraid of managing older employees who have more experience than they do. Millennial managers are likely to feel that they do not have the experience necessary to justify insisting that they know the best way to perform a given task. And as we have seen, older workers may resent being managed by someone younger, especially if that manager has less practical experience.

As Megan Johnson and Larry Johnson note in their book Generations, Inc., the problem of younger supervisors managing older workers has been vexing the armed services for many decades. Because officers are generally commissioned shortly after completing a bachelor’s degree, the military has had to figure out how to make the younger super-visor/older worker relationship function. Newly commissioned officers are taught to recognize and appreciate the expertise and experience of the older sergeants who report to them. Young officers are trained to treat their more experienced subordinates as partners. The hierarchical nature of the military prevents open dialog in front of lower-ranking soldiers, so sergeants are encouraged to share their experience-based opinion in private. “The supervisor is still in charge, but he’s missing an opportunity (and is more likely to make a mistake) if he doesn’t check in with his more experienced subordinates—at least to hear their thoughts—before making important decisions. The supervisor still sets the goals and holds people accountable for meeting them. But the subordinates have a big say in the execution, and when they walk out of their private meetings with their managers, they need to be on the same page.”2 This approach leverages the experience of the older worker, creates better outcomes for the unit, and builds a stronger, more functional relationship between the manager and the worker.

Most of the academic and practitioner literature that addresses managing older workers focuses on two areas: the issues of ageism and age-related stereotypes, and practical issues related to retaining and engaging people near or past traditional retirement age. The practitioner literature also includes a small number of books and articles devoted to the issue of Millennials managing Xers and Boomers, as well as Silents, which we summarize below.

Although the following guidelines are meant to help, keep in mind that everyone is an individual. What works for one Boomer or Gen Xer might not work for another. Because you can’t count on an individual to always behave according to his or her generational profile, it is important to listen and to be open minded.

As Herb Kelleher said in a WOBI talk,3 people work primarily for psychic satisfaction. If their work environment does not provide the psychological satisfaction they seek, workers will become disengaged. Or they might leave. This is especially true when workers are approaching retirement.

Recommendations for Managing Workers Older Than Yourself

We have a set of recommendations that should be kept in mind when managing workers older than you, regardless of their generation. These are good, general bits of advice for almost any managerial context, but they are especially poignant in a multi-generational management context, and particularly when a manager is responsible for employees who are older and more experienced than him- or herself. The next section examines specific likes, dislikes, and needs of each generation.

Know What They Don’t Like

This might be even more important than knowing what motivates your Gen X, Boomer, and Silent employees. Frederick Herzberg was the first to note that things that demotivate us are usually not the opposite of the things that motivate us.4 Herzberg referred to these demotivating factors as “hygiene” factors to help clarify that they are not on the same spectrum as motivating factors. For example, a Gen Xer might be especially sensitive to being micromanaged. If her manager is guilty of this sin, then almost certainly she will feel unhappy in her current work environment. But if one day her supervisor woke up and decided to let her get her work done on her own, she would not suddenly feel excited about her job, unless there was some other factor responsible for creating that sense of excitement that the micromanaging had been masking. If you want your employees to be engaged, then it is critical to get rid of the environmental factors that are causing them to count the minutes until they can run out the door. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that because your firm has a lot of motivating factors, there can be no hygiene factors. This can create a confusing situation for manager and employee alike. Employees will feel torn. They may stay because of the positive factors but will complain about the negatives, demoralizing themselves and others.

Understand What Motivates Them

As we discussed in Chapters 6, “Generational Differences: Fact or Fiction?,” and 7, “Dynamics of a Multigenerational Workforce,” each generation has its own likes and dislikes. Keep in mind that something that motivates a Baby Boomer might not work for an Xer. We go into more detail about motivating factors for each generation later in this chapter.

Seek Their Input, Learn from Them, and Encourage Mentoring

In our survey, the number-one challenge for Millennial managers identified by both younger and older workers is lack of experience. Older workers are happy to share their experience, especially once you have shown that you value the wisdom and perspective they can offer. Sometimes a formal arrangement like a mentoring program can help to create a relationship that might not otherwise exist. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I was given an assignment to interview an older person about his or her experience during the Great Depression. I interviewed my next-door neighbor, a man I had always liked and admired. He was a very private man whom I observed from a distance while he was busy in his garden almost every day but with whom I rarely interacted, partly because of our age difference and partly because of our communication style. He gladly accepted the request for the interview and shared with me a part of himself that I would never otherwise have gotten to experience. I wasn’t much of a psychologist at that age, but the experience seemed cathartic for him, and it was deeply educational for me. I knew infinitely more about my neighbor after an hour of sharing than I had learned in the previous five years. Most mentoring arrangements will not offer the same level of intimacy, but they do create levels of education and mutual understanding that would not otherwise exist.


Be clear about expectations and whether those expectations are being met. Provide feedback but be aware that not all groups need or want as much feedback as others. Millennials prefer to receive feedback far more frequently than Xers or Boomers. As we found in our review of the Canadian Conference Board data5 (refer to Chapter 7), multigenerational work environments are rife with mutual misunderstanding. The only way to avoid misunderstanding is to provide an open channel for two-way communication.

Be a Leader but Don’t Overdo the “Boss” Thing

Because of your position, people are looking to you to provide guidance. They expect you to make decisions and to ensure that those decisions are executed. But you do not need to be heavy-handed.

The foregoing are applicable for employees of all generations. The following sections cover issues that are specific to each generation.

Generation X

As we explained in Chapter 6, Xers were the latchkey kids, raised by Baby Boomers and Silents who were either working long hours, divorced, or pursuing their inner journey. They grew up without an authority figure present and are therefore self-reliant and prefer to be managed with a hands-off style. In this section, we list what works for Gen X employees.

Challenge them. Xers have a strong independent streak. They don’t look at the office as a place to develop attachments, which means they probably won’t be interested in your team-building parties. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in what they do. On the contrary, they want to be capable and competent, and they don’t mind putting in the effort necessary to build up their abilities. So give them challenging assignments and then go worry about something else. Your Gen X employees will appreciate the confidence you have shown in them and the opportunity to tackle a problem on their own. Feedback is important, of course. However, you will find that most Xers are fairly blunt about their own work. Let them tell you what went well and what did not.

Help them prepare for their next job. Yes, you heard that right. It might be the best way to keep them. It may seem paradoxical, but you will actually find your Gen X workers far more engaged and a lot more loyal if you give them opportunities to develop marketable skills. Xers were the ones who saw their parents laid off, even after their parents put in long hours. Consequently, they feel it is critical to stay current in the latest techniques and technologies. They appreciate opportunities to build up their skill sets and keep their resumes current. Provide as much training as time and budget allow.

In the same vein, it is important to give them opportunities to work in different settings or different aspects of a project. For example, if you manage a software development team, you may find that some team members value the opportunity to have a break from programming to take on the role of scrum master or big data engineer. Allow them to explore new directions. You are likely to find your Xers energized and raising the collective skill level of your team.

Xers like to get things done. Processes and policies that impede progress will lead to reduced job satisfaction. Be prepared to explain why a given procedure is necessary. If it is not truly necessary, eliminate it. Better yet, give the job of revising and streamlining the official Policy & Procedure to an Xer. More will get done, and your Xer employees will feel more satisfied. They might even appreciate it.

Recognize people appropriately for their contributions. Reward and promote based on accomplishment and contribution. Xers respect leaders and coworkers who “carry the goods.” Xers are particularly turned off by promotions that aren’t earned and by the prominence of individuals in an organization who are not contributing. This is a huge hygiene factor for Gen X employees. For a refresher on this topic, see the classic Xer movie Wayne’s World.

Another thing we pointed out in Chapter 6 is that Boomers were raised to be social, but Xers were not. Xers were left to their own devices as children to a much greater extent than Millennials, Boomers, or Silents. As a consequence, they are more socially awkward, as depicted by the character Garth in Wayne’s World. But they also value authenticity. It is important for Xers to be themselves, even if that means being a little different. On the other hand, be ready to explain and even coach them on office politics.

Although Xers like getting the work done, it is not the central focus of their lives. Hence, Xers seek flexibility in their schedules. Both male and female Xers place their children’s needs foremost. Xer dads want to coach their daughter’s soccer team and son’s baseball. Xers’ parents worked long hours and missed important milestones in their lives. To Gen Xers, this just does not make sense. It also does not make sense to them that work has to be entirely serious. Xers can be intense about the quality of their work while also making it fun.

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers have decades of work experience under their belts. However, as we saw in our review of the Canadian Conference Board survey results (refer to Chapter 7), there are several areas where Boomers’ self-perceptions are at serious odds with the way Millennials see them. Boomers were raised to believe in themselves, in prosperity, and in possibilities.

A recent study by Bankers Life found that 60% of retired Baby Boomers who have a job chose to work for non-financial reasons. Eighteen percent said they chose to work in order to stay mentally sharp, 15% said they wanted to keep physically active, and 14% said they were working in order to have a sense of purpose. The same study found that among working retirees, 78% reported feeling at least as satisfied in their post-retirement jobs as they were prior to retirement, even though their post-retirement compensation was less than what they had been earning previously.6 We are not sharing these statistics in order to suggest that all Baby Boomers are retiring imminently or that they are all seeking part-time jobs but to show the value they place on psychic satisfaction and purpose.

Baby Boomers are idealists who set out to change the world. They want their contributions at work to echo the movements they supported in their youth and later years. Many Boomers, especially members of the so-called First Wave, take social contribution seriously. They are well aware of the sacrifices that their elders made to win the war against Nazism in Europe and to fight racism and poverty at home. They heard John F. Kennedy when he said “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” They seek to make the world more harmonious. The fact that those efforts sometimes seem misguided to non-Boomers does not in any way diminish the earnest desire to make the world a better place that motivates them. Continue to ask them to help make a difference.

Look for new ways to leverage their strengths. As we saw in Chapter 7, Boomers have an elevated view of their skills. Find ways to bring their contribution in line with their self-view. Give them positive opportunities to put their strengths to work but at the same time hold them accountable when there are gaps.

Boomers are likely to see you as being too young for your role. Don’t ignore them. Unless you face their resistance squarely, they will see you as “part of the problem”—an old Boomer catchphrase. You may need to prove yourself to them through your performance. Based on what we know about you so far, this should be a snap.

Just like the Silents (described in the next section), Baby Boomers have a wealth of experience. Where possible, recruit Boomer employees to be mentors for other members of your team.

Silent Generation

Members of the Silent generation now represent around 5% of the U.S. workforce. Some authors have made a convincing claim that because of the good work habits and attitudes of workers from this age group, employers ought to seek ways to employ more of them.7

Herb Kelleher’s observation that workers seek psychic satisfaction is especially poignant here. Traditionalist workers are more likely to be working out of a need for a sense of purpose than due to economic necessity. According to Peter Cappelli, “Older workers tend to be in the workforce because they want to be—relatively few look for jobs because they need them to survive. (During the Great Recession, we heard a lot about people not being able to retire because of finances, but we’re hearing that less now.)”8

Cappelli adds, “Younger supervisors may find that what works with most of their staff doesn’t work for older employees. They aren’t as fearful of being fired (they’re already at retirement age) and they have less interest in promotions or a big payout in the future.”9

Cappelli has several recommendations for keeping Silent generation workers engaged. First, acknowledge their experience. “Everyone wants their expertise to be recognized, especially by the boss. But with older workers, it’s even more important, because they typically have a lot of experience—so ignoring it is especially irritating. And older workers themselves can be prickly about being managed by someone who knows less than they do.”10

Silent employees might not be current with the latest technology or processes, but that does not mean they don’t want to be. Find out what they are capable of doing and help them adapt to and embrace new systems and methodologies.

Silents will appreciate opportunities to contribute to their departments and employers. Mostly they are looking for meaningful work. Recognize their experience and contributions by giving them opportunities to mentor younger workers.

Because of their distinct life courses, each generation has its own set of needs in the workplace. Members of all generations need to be valued—but each in a unique way. Silents and Boomers want their experience to be appreciated and to make meaningful contributions. Xers need to be challenged and to be given assignments that broaden their skill sets. Knowing what motivates and demotivates members of each generation will enable you to keep your employees engaged and productive.

In the next chapter, we list a number of challenges that managers often fall into and show you how to work your way through them so your career can really take off.


1. Ernst & Young, LLC. (2013). Younger managers rise in the ranks: EY study on generational shifts in the workplace. http://www.ey.com/US/en/Careers/Fall-2013-Edition-of-EY-Navigator---6---Younger-managers-rise-in-the-ranks.

2. Johnson, M., & Johnson, L. (2010). Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work. New York: AMACOM.

3. Kelleher, H. (2008). Building a people-focused culture. Paper presented at World of Business Ideas (previously HSM). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxTFA1kh1m8.

4. Herzberg, F., et al. (1959). The Motivation to Work (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley.

5. Conference Board of Canada. (2009). Winning the “Generation Wars”: Making the most of generational differences and similarities in the workplace. https://www.aqesss.qc.ca/docs/pdf/i-media/20091126/ConferenceBoard_Compete_Generation_Wars.pdf.

6. Bankers Life. (2015). New expectations, new rewards: Work in retirement for middle-income Boomers. http://www.centerforasecureretirement.com/media/65648/work-in-retirement-report-may-2015.pdf.

7. Johnson, M., & Johnson, L. (2010). Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work. New York: AMACOM.

8. Cappelli, P. (2014). Engaging your older workers. Harvard Business Review blog, https://hbr.org/2014/11/engaging-your-older-workers/.

9. Cappelli, P. (2014). Engaging your older workers. Harvard Business Review blog, https://hbr.org/2014/11/engaging-your-older-workers/.

10. Cappelli, P. (2014). Engaging your older workers. Harvard Business Review blog, https://hbr.org/2014/11/engaging-your-older-workers/.

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