It’s naturally assumed that if you were to put a bunch of Baby Boomers and Millennials in an enclosed space we’d immediately be at each other’s throats. Tensions are pretty much baked in as we have very different outlooks on work, life, even technology. And as Millennials begin to take management positions and are put in charge of their wizened co-workers, we should expect simmering tensions to boil over into open conflict, turning standard office settings into hellscapes out of Mortal Kombat (OK, a bit dramatic, but I trust that you Millennials see what I did there).
If you’re a conflict resolution specialist or organizational psychologist, congratulations, you’ll be gainfully employed for the foreseeable future. For everyone else, it won’t be loads of fun.
Unless we start to change our thinking.
When I learned that this column will run in an issue focused on diversity and inclusion, I thought that maybe this is a framing problem: If we viewed it through the lens of diversity and celebrated our differences, maybe conflict doesn’t have to be the norm. While there are fundamental differences in our behaviors, attitudes and values, many of our mutual perceptions turn out to be unfounded and more a product of motivated reasoning or negative wishful thinking. We can do this. (Full disclosure: As a Baby Boomer I’ve had mostly positive experiences with my Millennial counterparts — the trick is learning to be patient as you’re being treated like a person with special needs.)
To celebrate diversity, you first must find some common ground. If you’re prepared to wait several years, a solution is at hand. This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, where the past fuses with the future, but consider: Middle age starts around 40 and ends at 65, correct? During the 2020s older Millennials and younger Boomers will both be middle-aged. And, as the adage goes, never miss an opportunity to turn a tear in the fabric of time into an opportunity.
Both parties will greet this with amusement and irony. The Boomer can be excused for harboring some degree of schadenfreude (middle age is a bitch, eh Mr. Jones?), and the Millennial can be excused for looking at us as the generation that made the planet uninhabitable for future generations. But we’ll share pictures of our kids (our grandkids, their first and second born), commiserate over bills and the high cost of living (their mortgages, the prices we pay to see classic rock bands on tour), our mutual inability to play sports without bodily harm (though there’s a difference between a knee sprain and a mild coronary). As we find common ground we will start to appreciate and draw on our differences, making us all the better for it. I sincerely hope and like to believe this will be the case, but lurking inside my optimism are echoes of the Saturday Night Live skit in which Steve Martin plays a medieval barber whose leechbased medical solutions cause the death of a young woman whose mother calls him a charlatan and makes him rethink his core beliefs: “Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a ‘scientific method’ . . . (that) could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! (pause) Naaaaaahhh!”