Millennials Versus Boomers: Can We Ever Bridge the Understanding Gap?
WHEREIN TWO BOOMERS CHALLENGE MILLENNIALS AND OTHER BOOMERS TO PUSH THE RESET BUTTON...
Preface: Wow! This installment approaches the end of the second deka-segment of this series by Jim Murray and me. When we first started the series on LinkedIn, we intended among other things to show that it was possible to have lively discussion and disagreement, without lasting acrimony. And we recently felt fboth lattered and gratified to read the kind words of LinkedIn and UX expert John Vaughan when he wrote on beBee that we had, "... pioneered ... with your he said/he said series on LinkedIn..." and demonstrated how "...an article posting can evolve into something far richer and substantial ..."
Both Jim and I publish on different days parallel versions of each installment, and I continue to do the same on LinkedIn, for those many followers who remain there. Be warned that our exchanges on He Said He Said are for intellectual adults, and therefore neither Jim, nor I mince words or pussy-foot around delicate topics. However, if you find what you read here worthwhile, let us know. And if you disagree with what one or both of us says, be sure to comment. For whether you agree or disagree, intellectual engagement is our primary objective here.
PHIL: I was talking to a Millennial friend the other day, and he said that he was sick and tired of Baby Boomers pulling the “experience” trump card in discussions. According to him, it was like saying, “Hey, you don’t know shit, because you haven’t lived long enough to learn anything.” He also believed that the Boomer belief in the primacy of experience is what generates the communications gap between Boomers and Millennials.
Now, I admit to being a big believer in the value of experience. In fact, the tagline on my business stationery and marketing materials is, “Experience Always Matters”.
Not that I think experience necessarily makes one smart or wise. To be sure, relevant experience is helpful, indeed essential, in many business contexts. Because it is prerequisite to avoiding costly and time consuming errors, whether in planning, project development, management, and the like. As I often tell my consulting clients, I can help them not because I am so brilliant, but because I have already made just about every mistake they might trip over, and so can guide them around the majority of pitfalls.
However, my Millennial friend’s comment got me thinking. Do Boomers rely too heavily on experience as a prime indicator of competence or wisdom? And for that reason, do Boomers too often actually dismiss, with prejudice, the ideas and opinions of Millennials as the mere ramblings of naïve, ignorant youth? Or are our reactions based on context, with some venues being suited to an emphasis on experience, while others depend very more heavily on creativity and outside-the-box thinking?
JIM: Well…he said, revving up for a rant that may or may not materialize, let me say this about that. The other day I saw an interview with Coleson Whitehead who is the author a sort of historical fantasy novel called The Underground Railway.
This is, according to what he was saying is a very complex sustained metaphor, that examines the question: What if the Underground Railway, (which was the movement to take slaves north and set them free in Canada back in the 1860s) was an actual railway underneath the ground.
Mr. Whitehead told the interviewer that he had the idea some 12 years before he actually wrote the novel and cited a lack of life experience as the principal reason that he didn’t write the book back when he first had the idea.
I could be a smart-ass and say I rest my case. But that doesn’t really prove much except for the fact that some people believe that life experience gives them more to draw on when doing certain creative things.
I don’t happen to really believe in all this generational nomenclature, Gen Xers, Millennials, Boomers. Gag me with a spoon.
The trouble with ‘Millennials’ does not, in my opinion, have anything to do with more experienced people calling them out for their lack of experience, because the fact is they do lack experience, because they just haven’t been around long enough to gain experience.
I think this problem is about the Millennials who have turned themselves into this ‘special’ generation, so that everybody who fits the age parameters gets to preface their opinions with ‘People in my generation” or ‘Millennials like me’ blah blah blah.
They are all wrapped up in themselves, which I often see as defensive posturing. Their problem is that they want to be treated the same way as people with much more experience, they just don’t seem to feel it’s necessary to put in the time.
This is pretty much par for the course for every generation coming up, with the exception of the boomers. Because the boomers created a cultural revolution that changed a lot of the stuff that was wrong in society.
I don’t see Millennials really changing much of anything other than the number of apps available at the app store.
We call them kids because we’re older. They call us old farts because they’re kids. The best way to get up a kid’s nose is to lord your life experience over them. The best way for them to learn how lack of experience can adversely affect them is to let them make their mistakes.
So there you go, Mr. Boomer Boat Boy. Agree or disagree?
PHIL: That’s MISTER Boomer Boat Boy, to you buddy. Oh wait, you did say “Mister” didn’t you? Well, probably you just wanted to rob me of a good line.
Here’s the thing. What Boomers — and a lot of others — tend to forget is that experience per se doesn’t mean squat. There is a common cliché that most of us get older, but rarely wiser. And it’s a cliché precisely because it’s true.
I think we need to keep in mind that, unless we’ve learned from our experience, having that experience is of no value.
In running several of my own and other people’s businesses over the years — yes, dear readers, here comes the Boomer Lament… not — I tended to hire mostly people over 50, because my experience is that people of that age can usually work twice as hard for twice as long as pretty much anyone half their age — without whining and complaining about it. Still, the kiss of death for me as a manager was hearing, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Which is what I think Millennials hear, albeit incorrectly, when a Boomer says, “In my experience…”
Several years ago, I owned a small marine cabinetry shop that specialized in designing and fabricating ultra-lightweight cabinets and furniture for weight-sensitive applications in high-performance vessels. I won’t bore you with the details of the niche technology and proprietary techniques, so suffice it to say, we didn’t follow “traditional” cabinet making procedures. (If anyone’s curious, here’s a link to see some of what I’m talking about: https://www.bebee.com/producer/@friedman-phil/saving-serious-weight-in-yacht-and-boat-interiors)
The interesting fact about that operation is that we had very little success with highly skilled and experienced cabinet makers who already “knew” how to do everything. And we had significantly more success with less experienced, but more trainable younger people.
Consequently, I have to wonder if which of experience versus ability is primary doesn’t depend almost entirely on context. And I wonder whether the best situation might not be where we build cross-generational teams that gain synergy from blending experience and wisdom, with creativity and new and different ways of looking at problems.
JIM: OK…I hate it when you nail shit to the wall like that. But context being what context is, it then becomes a very industry/situation specific thing.
I remember, for example, when the writer Robert Ludlum (the Jason Bourne books) died. All of a sudden there was a huge hole in the espionage thriller genre that had to be filled, because the franchise was just so damn popular.
As I recall, nobody ever made any noises about training someone to do the job. They had to go after someone who was so experienced and talented that they could just plug him in and carry on as if Ludlum were still alive.
The settled on Eric Van Lustbader, who was a successful European thriller writer with several best selling books under his belt.
So yeah, context is really everything. You see this in the corporate world all the time. Grooming someone for a position. Generally speaking the person who is being groomed is not some Millennial who parachuted in from some Ivy college. He’s someone who knows the company, knows the industry, understands the politics, has connections of his own and, most importantly, has a track record.
This isn’t true in every corporation, especially not in the tech sector, which could be the exception that makes the rule. But I would say that it’s more common than not.
So the net-net of my opinion is that experience matters a lot. But I do agree that context is the key. So now I have a bit of a headache and have to take a pill.
Ok, feeling better. I only have two more things to say on this issue.
1. I think that sociologically and philosophically speaking, there is a mutual resentment between Millennials and Boomers and this will only be resolved: A) when Millennials start showing more respect for the experience the Boomers possess, and B) when the Boomers stop writing off anybody who doesn’t have as much experience as they do as being next to useless.
2. I find it a great source of sadness and disappointment in our culture that this conflict has such relevance in today’s world. It’s part of a larger sad statement about what out culture has come to.
If any of this makes sense, I’ll be thrilled.
PHIL: Although what you’re saying is not likely to plunk anyone’s magic twanger, Froggy, it does highlight an important insight. Namely, that our culture is fragmented along generational fault lines. (Yea, I do know you already said that.)
As I see it, this fragmentation involves more than simply being able or not to thumb a smartphone keyboard at 60 wpm. It involves outlook, values, and … respect. Respect for the experience and abilities of others. And respect for the power of teamwork..
Don’t get me wrong. I personally don’t harbor an abundance of respect for authority. Whether that authority derives from social class, economic position, or any of the several other metrics society applies to determine who gets to say and control what.
I may have told you this before, but I was once passed over for a big job by the new owner of a company for which I was working, because, in his words, “as much as I like you and respect your experience and knowledge, you don’t respect authority, and you’re not afraid of anybody, including me.” I took that as a compliment, since he and I had been virtually joined at the hip for six months while we negotiated his purchase of the company I was running. Yea, I know, big consolation … for the big salary I missed out on.
However, that said, some people have earned, and are due respect, precisely because they have accumulated significant and relevant experience. Some cultures have a long history of recognizing that. One of the reasons that I like doing business in Asia these days is that I never feel the hostility toward age or experience that I sometimes sense in the west. Indeed, when I’ve traveled in recent years to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, I haven’t felt the need to color out the gray in my Van Dyke, which I have to tell you was refreshing.
Why do Millennials in our culture so often disregard the value of experience? Could it be due to our generation’s propensity to coddle our children and raise them in an atmosphere where they received prize ribbons for “participation”? Could it be the result of our allowing our schools to buy into the propaganda fed them by the computer industry, and standing silent while teachers educated our kids to use WP and presentation templates as shortcuts to producing papers and reports? Could the reason be that we allowed them to be taught that winning a prize doesn’t require any real effort or native ability — provided you have the right app on your smartphone?
And what about us Boomers? Do we take the time to engage with them, to hear them out? Or do we, as you’ve pointed out, continually dismiss them out of hand as not knowing shit from Shinola?
Surely, if there is fragmentation in our culture along generational lines, then there is blame and responsibility on both sides of the Millennials versus Boomers gap. And maybe it’s time to push the reset button.
Afterword: JimMurray can, and always will speak for himself. However, you are free to post comments directed to either Jim or me, on either his post of HSHS No. 18, or mine. You'll always get an answer one way or the other.
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
The (optional-to-read) pitch: As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve the clarity of their thought, master the logic of discussion, and strengthen their ability to deal with disagreement.
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