Blog Post

Boomers vs. Millennials

By Jay Nachman

Some millennials have been known to mock the stereotypical attributes of baby boomers, and vice versa. But are generational stereotypes even true?

Are baby boomers, those born between 1944 and 1964, bad at technology? Do millennials, those born between 1980 and 1994, want “participation trophies” just for showing up?

Dr. Dustin Kidd, a professor at Temple University’s Sociology Department, doesn’t think these perceived generalizations are true. Generational divides are fabricated, he said. They refer to age and cultural differences that can be found at specific cutoff points. “But there’s nothing in nature that creates those cutoff points,” Kidd said. “That’s a cultural construction that’s really problematic.”

It’s a problem, because there isn’t a stable environment in which a category system, like generations, can be tested. Generations happen in the context of world history where there is no constant and everything is a variable.

“Whenever you do those tests, it becomes a question of context for those groups,” Kidd said. “Is it just a U.S. context? Is it just an urban context? Is it a white context? Is it just a developed world context? There’s so much actual variation within the groups. Even though we are using the concept of generations, to say that they’re all like each other just doesn’t hold up. It’s become more of a pop culture concept than a true sociological concept.”

Pat Rocchi, 68, a retired communications consultant who worked with millennials during the tail end of his career, found the stereotype that millennials don’t work as hard as boomers to be “a big myth that has taken on a life of its own.”

“I worked with many millennials, and I found that they were as hard-working as anybody else and that they were very devoted to their families,” said Rocchi, a Bella Vista resident and father of a millennial daughter and son. “Because of that, they did not make work the be-all and end-all that the boomers did. I believe that the reason millennials made that choice is because of the fact that they saw what devotion to work did to their parents, the boomers. For many people, it broke up their marriages and boomers got laid off anyhow.”

When it comes to work, Charlene Holsendorff, a career management specialist and baby boomer, has seen clear differences between the way baby boomers and millennials approach job searches. For many years she delivered a workshop, “Overcoming Age Bias in the Job Search.” Based on her research and personal experience, she found that baby boomers underestimated
what they did in their careers and made age an issue in their own minds.

She advises job-seeking boomers to “get a handle on their own thinking first, because it’s going to influence how you come across to other people. The other main thing is getting a handle on what you bring to the table. And that is what I am finding to be the huge difference between baby boomers and millennials. Millennials are the generation where it’s all about them.
They have a huge handle on what they bring to the table. Overly so.”

Holsendorff, who grew up in West Philadelphia and now consults from her home  office in Montgomery County, said she’ll hear baby boomers say they don’t want to brag or take all the credit on work projects. “That is a conversation that I rarely hear from millennials. It’s fascinating,” she said.

If the generational divides don’t exist, is there any truth to the generational stereotypes? Not really, believes Kidd. As one example, he’s had lots of millennial students who weren’t particularly tech-savvy, despite stereotypes that indicate millennials are digital natives born surrounded by technology. At the same time, there is heavy use of social media and technology by members of older generations.

Kidd does believe that there are real issues among the two groups that are worth discussing. “I think there’s a conversation to be had around whether older groups could and should have done more to address major issues from climate change to systemic racism, and a sense that millennials are driven too much by emotions and not actually working toward careful policy and institutional change,” he said.

But ridicule and contempt for any generation is simply ageist and should be called out. “If you have a disagreement, you should focus that disagreement around your actual ideas rather than dismissing someone because of their age or generation category that they fall into,” Kidd said. In other words, when arguing a point, keep it civil, without the name calling.

OK, boomers and millennials?

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Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.