Baby Boomers in the Workplace
How Their Generational Traits and Characteristics Affect the Workplace
What sets the Baby Boomer generation apart in the workplace from the Traditionalists that preceded them and the generations that followed them?
The Baby Boomers Generation
Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. The oldest the 79 million Baby Boomers reached age 65 in 2011 and the youngest will get there by 2029.
Following World War II, the average age of marriage dropped, and the number of children increased dramatically, making the Baby Boomer generation substantially larger than the Traditionalists.
Conveniently, this population explosion corresponded with a post-war economic boom (aided by the G.I. Bill and the growth of consumer suburbs).
But in the early years of the boom, schools were overcrowded, colleges didn’t have enough seats, and competition for starting jobs was intense. As a result, the young Baby Boomers learned to compete for resources and success.
Common Characteristics of Baby Boomers
- Work-Centric: Baby Boomers are extremely hardworking and motivated by position, perks, and prestige. Baby Boomers relish long work weeks and define themselves by their professional accomplishments. Since they sacrificed a great deal to get where they are in their career, this workaholic generation believes that Generation X and Generation Y should pay their dues and conform to a culture of overwork. Baby Boomers may criticize younger generations for a lack of work ethic and commitment to the workplace.
- Independent: Baby Boomers are confident, independent and self-reliant. This generation grew up in an era of reform and believe they can change the world. They questioned established authority systems and challenged the status quo. In the legal workplace, Baby Boomers are not afraid of confrontation and will not hesitate to challenge established practices.
- Goal-Oriented: With increased educational and financial opportunities than previous generations, Baby Boomers are achievement-oriented, dedicated and career-focused. They welcome exciting, challenging projects and strive to make a difference.
- Competitive: Since Baby Boomers equate work and position with self-worth, they are quite competitive in the workplace. They are clever, resourceful and strive to win. Boomers believe in hierarchal structure and rankism and may have a hard time adjusting to workplace flexibility trends. They believe in "face time" at the office and may fault younger generations for working remotely.
- Self-Actualization: Because the Baby Boomers grew up in a time of mass middle-class affluence, they had time and energy for self-actualization, and the Traditionalists values of conformity and loyalty started to fall apart. Work for the Baby Boomers shifted from a source of stability to a means of self-actualization and self-expression, moderating the Traditionalist love of hierarchical management with an emphasis on structural fairness and equal opportunity.
How Baby Boomer Values and Ethics Impacted the Legal Workplace
The Baby Boomers entered the legal profession at a time of expansion and change, bringing with them their long-established competitive and workaholic ways and importing their views on social change and self-expression.
In law firms, corporations, and other legal employers, Boomers insisted on a modicum of feedback and argued for yearly standardized performance reviews to level the playing field for all employees. With the booming economy, it was relatively easy to advance up the ranks to law firm partnership, even though hard work and substantial billable hours were still required. The joke among many Boomer law partners is that they’d never be able to make partner today, and probably wouldn’t have had the credentials to even be hired as an associate.
Over the course of Boomer careers, firm salaries and equity payouts exploded, and they’d largely avoided student loans and other debt, due to the expansion of public education and the booming economy, leaving partners at the top of a seemingly endlessly widening pyramid.
Outside of the relatively conservative firm context, Boomers used the legal workplace to fight for their deeply-held beliefs, advancing the rights of women and minorities in the courts via impact litigation. Women started to become a more frequent presence in the legal workplace (as attorneys, rather than secretaries), opening up opportunities, but also creating areas of frisson and conflict.
As women flooded into the workplace, the birthrate dropped substantially, resulting in the baby-bust Generation X—25% smaller than the Baby Boomers.
As the booming economy slowed down, Generation X entered the workplace, bringing derision and concern over their “slacker” values, but also a degree of tech-savvy know how that the legal profession had never before seen.
This generational segment constituted a large majority of law firm leaders, corporate executives, senior paralegals, and legal managers. By 2010, nearly 70 percent of law firm partners were Baby Boomers. However, the oldest Boomers began reaching retirement age in 2011. This sets the stage for an unprecedented turnover of leadership in the coming years.
If you were born in the U.S. after 1946, you are a Baby Boomer; if you were born after 1964, you belong to Generation X; and if you were born after 1980, you are a Millennial. People flock to these generational identities like they flock to their horoscopes, combing through all the traits to seek out the good characteristics and throw away the bad attributes that are reflected in their generational identities. Although information about them varies, there may be some truth to these generational identities and how they have shaped today’s society. From the Great Depression and World War II to technology and startup companies, society has made drastic changes that have shaped the psychology behind these generational eras.
The Baby Boomers, aka flower children
The Baby Boomers were born roughly between the years of 1946 and 1964, placing them in the age range between 51 and 70 years. Perhaps the most influential generation in history, this “flower power” generation is known for their pivotal roles in the civil rights movement, Woodstock and the Vietnam War.
The term “Baby Boomer” was derived due to the dramatic increase in birth rates following World War II; soldiers came home from the war and had more time to spend creating babies, resulting in a population in the U.S. of 75.4 million strong.
This generation values relationships, as they did not grow up with technology running their lives. Baby Boomers grew up making phone calls and writing letters, solidifying strong interpersonal skills. Yet as they got older, they actually became fluent in technology and now use cell phones and tablets. The difference is they use these technologies as productivity tools as opposed to connectivity, an idea that came from the Millennial generation.
As this generation reaches retirement, American politics have been shaped to find a solution for the depletion of the Medicare and Social Security systems. Geriatric medicine has become a popular specialty, since the need for medical and psychological health care is now focused on meeting the needs of senior citizenry.
In the workforce, Baby Boomers play by the rules, putting their work-life first and living the true “American Dream,” which encompasses kids, a 9-to-5 career, a house and a minivan. They paved the path for the workaholic in Corporate America, which is currently being re-structured today, thanks to the Millennials.
Generation X, aka the lost generation
Generation X, known as the “sandwich” generation, was born between 1965 and 1980, and is currently approximately 35 to 50 years of age. They are lodged in between the two big well-known generations, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. Unlike the Baby Boomer generation, Generation X is focused more on work-life balance rather than following the straight-and-narrow path of Corporate America.
Dubbed by media as “latch-key kids,” Gen Xers are considered the first “daycare” generation, because many were raised by two parents who worked or by a single divorced parent. This generation delayed marriage and childbearing to focus on developing themselves first. They are the first generation to value work-life balance, possibly in response to experiencing the consequences of their parents’ workaholism — their broken homes.
In her blog about the global essay collection she edited, “Generation X Goes Global: Mapping a Youth Culture in Motion,” Christine Henseler summarizes this generation as “a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all.”
The Millennials, aka the narcissistic tech gurus
The first generation to reach adulthood in the new millennium, Millennials are the young technology gurus who thrive on new innovations, startups and working out of coffee shops. They were the kids of the 1990s who were born roughly between 1980 and 2000. These 20-somethings to early 30-year-olds have re-defined the workplace. Time magazine called them “The Me Me Me Generation” because they want it all. They are known as confident, entitled and depressed.
This blog-savvy generation was raised by parents who were not authoritative, but rather saw themselves as partners. The Millennials grew up making the rules rather than having their parents tell them what is right. Their lives are now run by their smart gadgets, their third appendage.
These people date through online dating websites, as opposed to the Baby Boomers who met their spouses through friends or at social outings. The Millennials may be known as successful and driven, but their marriage to technology has nearly destroyed their interpersonal skills and, as a result, depression is rampant in this generation.
“Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before,” authored by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is based on her “decades’ worth of psychological data”; and she “contends that depression, loneliness, and panic attacks are all significantly more characteristic of today’s 20-somethings than of preceding generations at the same age.” This could be due to the extreme pressure to be successful. Buying a home, keeping a good job and getting married isn’t as easy as it once was due to the extraordinary high costs in our current society. As a result, mental illness on college campuses is rampant. Mass school shootings are common, and they hardly existed during the past generations.
These stressors and mental illnesses are probably multi-factorial, driven by the hardships of society, the obsession with technology and the “I am better than you mentality.” In the workplace, Millennials, contrary to Baby Boomers, strive for flexibility rather than a higher tax bracket. They want more vacation time, casual dress and the flexibility of working from home rather than the office. They are all about working smarter, not harder.
Generation Z: The unknown
Born roughly between 1995 and 2012, Generation Z is the next generation that is still growing up. Not a lot of data is published about this generation, as the average age is somewhere between 4 and 19 years old. But we do know that these toddlers are already hooked on technology. Stay tuned for the new developments of this upcoming generation.
Contributed by Kristen Fuller, M.D.