I hate to admit it, but I immediately felt self-conscious because of the age difference. I was the only baby boomer of the bunch. I was also a traditional journalist with a history rooted in print, while they were children of the digital media age, so-called digital natives. Would they like me? Would I fit in? Would they think I was boring and old, or value my wisdom and skills? Although I have two millennials of my own and had enjoyed working with their older peers, I fretted.
This anxiety isn’t unique to me. You’d think boomer women and millennials were mortal enemies, judging by headlines: “Why are the baby boomers desperate to make us millennials hate ourselves,” demands one. “Four things millennials hate about you,” insists another. And “5 reasons baby boomers hate working for millennials.”
And, yes, some of those fears came true. Their texting with their contacts and friends did wear thin after 10 days. But the experience of being with these young women was invigorating. And it reinforced the importance of intergenerational friendships between women, particularly working women. Like many of their generation, my companions were smart, creative and enterprising. One had launched a travel magazine and Web site through Kickstarter. Another, a gifted photographer, had amassed hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. They taught me a lot. Kirsten showed me how to edit photos on my fledgling Instagram account. Katie introduced me to some travel apps. And Vivianne, who lived in Los Angeles and had the same purse as me (insert emoticon here!), shared how she’d helped fund her magazine with a cool party in New York. As a journalist trying to keep up with the dizzying changes in my profession, I felt like I’d taken a course in digital media.
I think I taught them something, too. During our travels, I was writing a challenging magazine story. They had tons of questions about the research and reporting, as well as how I’d launched my journalism career.
Even so, it’s hard for millennials and boomers to bond, says multigenerational workforce expert Lauren Stiller Rikleen, because of a bevy of misconceptions. For her 2014 book, “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us,” she surveyed 1,000 millennials on their experience working with boomers. She found three powerful misconceptions. Boomers chafe at this generation’s entitlement and self-confidence (ironically, the result of our diligent parenting). They see millennials’ need for feedback as a desire to hear how fabulous they are constantly. I just went through this, in fact, with my 23-year-old daughter. She called me from work because her boss didn’t say a word about some talking points she’d labored over. Had she done okay? What did she need to improve on?
And though they’re yearning for role models, millennials don’t think boomer women are always as supportive as they could be. Because we had to sacrifice a lot for our success, we believe that they should have it hard, too. But millennials reject that idea — as well they should. “That’s where the tension comes in,” said Susan Adams, professor of management at Bentley University, senior director of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business, and the author of a study of 1,000 college-educated millennials.
“Younger people hear, ‘I did it this way. I sacrificed sick leave, and that’s what you have to do to get ahead.’” Millennials would like to hear how we can help them manage their personal lives and careers.
But we can move beyond these tensions, and we should. Boomers are particularly well-positioned to understand what millennials are going through. Millennials came of age during the 2008 recession, watching companies collapse and millions of employees lose their jobs. Even though they’re the most educated generation in history, they also got stuck with an awful job market.
Just like baby boomers did.
I remember the recession in the ’70s, when I was newly sprung from college and couldn’t find a job. I also acutely remember when I was laid off during the dot-com meltdown. I was home with a colicky infant on unpaid maternity leave. It’s hard to believe and makes me furious, but young women are still fighting for the sane family-leave policies we were two decades ago. Despite a majority of women with children in the workforce, we still don’t have national child care or paid parental leave — policies that recognize the reality of adults’ lives. If boomer and millennial women joined forces on this, just think what we could do.
That’s another priority we share. We’re ambitious, but we’re also focused on work-life balance. Susan Adams found that a majority of the millennial women in her study (84 percent) would take an interesting lateral job move if they felt a promotion would interfere with family time. It was also more important to make a difference in the world than get professional recognition. And nearly 80 percent said that a positive work environment mattered more than money. While boomers haven’t been able to achieve a work-life balance, they want it, too.
Boomer women, if they’re open, can benefit a lot from millennial women, and not just in their knowledge and flair for digital technology. They pretty much help us with that in the office anyway. (Please give them some recognition. They’d appreciate it.) We can benefit from their perspectives and fresh approach to problem-solving. One of the young women I was with in Chile deftly negotiated a contract with a big client. I was incredibly impressed.
And millennial women — if they’re open — can learn from boomers how to navigate workplace politics, manage a crisis and how business gets done. Stiller Rikleen told me that boomer women are thinking a lot about their legacy and their desire to mentor younger women these days. Boomers want to leave them better off than they were. I feel that way, too. Recently, at a conference of 200 female journalists, I shared how I’d handled the pressure of writing a story on college sexual assault amid the scandal of another rape story being discredited. Afterward, several younger women thanked me.
I’m still in touch with the young women I met in Chile. Not long ago, Vivianne texted me and invited me over one afternoon. She lives in my old neighborhood, and we walked down the hill to get a pedicure. As we sat next to each other amid the buzz of the shop, we chatted about work and occasionally peeked at our phones.