Working With Boomers: A Millennial Perspective

Originally this post was written by Ian Carrick.

Moe approached me last week, asking if I could think of a good representative of the millennial generation, someone with experience working with boomers and Gen-Xers. I immediately thought of Sarah Vaira, a friend who graduated in our Leadership cohort at Seattle University last spring.

Last fall, she started working for Waste Management (WM) as an Education Outreach Coordinator. She and her team plan outreach campaigns to various municipalities in Western Washington that contract their garbage services to WM. They meet with city leaders to determine what level of education to provide, everything from annual mailings to waste consultation with local businesses. Sarah teaches people young and old about garbage and, in her words, she loves it.

I asked her some questions about working across generational difference.

Do you experience difficulties across age? If so, how?

There is definitely a credibility aspect. Yesterday I was in a meeting with a city council group. In my presence, and the presence of another twenty-something, an older co-worker spoke about an apparently disappointing group he recently worked with—“they looked like they’re in high school, college kids.” I didn’t say anything but was acutely aware of my fresh-out-of-college status. Relationship building is crucial to my job and I often feel unable to relate and connect with older team members. Rarely can I jump in and say, “I did that this weekend too!” Finding relational common ground has been a challenge.

Do you feel that you experience age bias? Why/how?

I want to say yes. Maybe I’m super sensitive to age bias because I feel nervous around city council members with a long career behind them. A few weeks ago towards the end of a meeting, a senior councilmember popped in. My older co-worker introduced my team and I. This senior member asked us “are you guys college interns?” All of us are full-time staff.

First impressions like this are hard. The waste-industry is male-dominated which presents a whole other set of hurdles for me. I realize I’m brand new to the staff and have lots of room to grow. That said, sometimes I feel that I might have to work harder for people to take my word on things.

What opportunities for partnership do you see across generational differences?

People give our generation a hard time about soft skills—how to get along with people, how to gain trust amongst co-workers. I have much to learn about professional relationships. The older generation seems better able to make work relationships fulfilling.

There are tech jobs landing in my lap everyday. I imagine this is beneficial but scary for older generations. My team and I recently huddled around an iPad to see this app I made for interns to use. I couldn’t imagine a group of boomers huddling up like us.

Working with boomers, what mentorship/development approaches work best for you? Challenging assignments, training, little/lot of feedback?

Feedback is helpful. I ask for it. I appreciate this about working with boomers. They’re more old-school. My team is all early thirties and younger. We sit in a room emailing each other with assignments. It is easier to track. But older folks just walk in and ask, even if I’m in the middle of somethingThis is a problem for us millennials—we don’t want to upset anyone. When pulled aside to talk about a project, I usually enjoy interfacing with them.

Jim Morris