Boomers vs. Millennials: More early shots in the generational war

Are the older boomers or the younger millennials facing a tougher time in today’s melted-down workplace?

Matthew Philips, in a piece for Business Week (link here), sees both sides of the argument, noting that “in terms of who has it worse, old or young workers, it’s worth measuring the differences between the two age groups to see which is more in need of help.” He assesses the situation this way:


A recent report by the Government Accountability Office comes down on the side of easing the plight of older workers, more than 50 percent of whom have actively sought a job for more than half a year.

. . . In a recent OpEd for the New York Times, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute point out just how devastating unemployment can be for older workers, leading to significantly higher rates of death and illness. Also, once they lose a job, older workers have a much harder time getting back into the workforce.


Yet there’s evidence that the real jobs crisis is taking place a generation or two down the food chain. Unemployment rates for young Americans are significantly higher. . . . Not only are young people coming out of college with an increasingly heavy burden of student loan debt; they’re coming into a job market where they’re less likely to earn enough money to pay that off in a reasonable time.

That has far-reaching consequences. Today’s young workers are likely to have lower earning . . . potential over their careers, and their inability to pay off their student debt will keep them from buying homes and cars and a whole lot of other stuff that helps juice the economy.

Commencement season

Around the country, newly-minted graduates are taking their bows at Commencement ceremonies and entering the workforce. As an educator, I am ever aware of the difficult job market they confront. Joseph Kahn, writing for the Boston Globe (link here), captured the challenges faced by many:

Those not drowning financially are often treading water at best, according to surveys like the one released last month by WSL/Strategic Retail, a consulting firm that tracks shopping and retail trends.

Millennials now represent “the highest percentage of Americans lacking enough money to meet their basic needs,” outdistancing Gen X-ers and baby boomers in that dubious regard, according to the survey.

Burdened by $1 trillion in college debt, millennials seek the lowest price on most of their purchased items (80 percent say), shop for lower-priced brands whenever possible (60 percent), and do much of their bargain hunting online (57 percent), the WSL survey found.

. . . Facing them is “a perfect storm of a weak job market and the fact that those who do have jobs have seen minimal pay increases,” says WSL president Candace Corlett. Unlike previous generations, she adds, young adults are starting out their professional lives by piecing together part-time and temp jobs, or freelancing for low pay. Full-time jobs with benefits? Not many.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for Perspectives on Work (link here) titled “The Looming 21st Century Generation Gap: Economic Challenges Facing Younger Workers.” I wouldn’t change a word of the opening paragraph:

Younger adults preparing to enter today’s workforce face a confluence of economic challenges unknown to many of their predecessors. These include rising student loan debt, barriers and higher thresholds to entry-level jobs, reduced wages and benefits, and heavier responsibilities for funding their own retirements and those of preceding generations. Many of these concerns were in play before the recession, but the economic meltdown has intensified all of them. Although the exact mix of these factors remains speculative, potentially we face a long period of generational strife that will play out in our workplaces, boardrooms, and legislatures.


Nevertheless, as a tail-end Baby Boomer, I fully comprehend the challenges and fears of a generation that has weathered the Great Recession during a time when our earning capacities are supposed to be at their peaks.

Many workers in their 40s and beyond have paid a heavy price during these past five years. At some employers, layoffs have targeted more experienced (and expensive) employees. And the older one gets, the more difficult it becomes to obtain a comparable position. Wages and salaries have flatlined, and pay cuts and freezes have become the norm.

In addition, quiet but devastating forms of age discrimination confront many workers who attempt to rebound from a layoff or to switch careers. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits age discrimination against individuals 40 and over, but proving such claims is extremely difficult.

The economic consequences of the meltdown on older workers are significant, especially in terms of retirement savings and planning. But the oft-neglected psychological impacts have exacted a heavy toll as well, ranging from the stress caused by uncertainty about job security to outright despair, desperation, and depression over a job loss.

Are we all in this together?

Call it a wash.

In any event, I foresee a lot of generational strife in the years to come. Boomers, concerned about economic security during their later years and (in some cases, at least) fueled by expectations of maintaining certain standards of living, will exercise their clout in boardrooms and legislatures. Millennials, many of whom are burdened by enormous student debt as they sail straight into a bad job market, will not want to pay extra levies to fund the retirements of generations preceding them.

I firmly believe that this scenario will get worse, perhaps substantially so, before it possibly gets better. The latter will require a fundamental revisiting of how we live, spend, and consume.


Graphic courtesy of Free Clip Art Now.

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making


(image courtesy

A recent conversation at a conference confirmed my suspicions: More organizations are using online, “anonymous” surveys to get feedback from their employees. This practice appears to be especially common during strategic planning or organizational assessment stages.

Typically, an employee will get an e-mail in her inbox, inviting her to complete an online survey, often using programs such as SurveyMonkey. Topics vary widely, but usually they cover some aspect(s) of employment relations or management decision making.

Multiple choice, yes-no, agree-disagree questions will predominate, sometimes exclusively, thus sharply limiting the range of feedback.

The catch (or, catches)

So the employee may be thinking, great, they want my opinion! I’m fortunate to be working at a place that welcomes what I have to say!

But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)

Call me a cynic, but here’s the usual situation:

1. The raw survey data are not shared with those who participated. Instead, a sanitized summary may be prepared and released.

2. If the survey results favor the desired outcome, they likely will be trumpeted to the high heavens.

3. If the results are ambiguous, you may not hear anything more, or those in charge will say the feedback was inconclusive and requires more thought.

4. If the results run squarely counter to the desired outcome, it’s possible that you’ll never hear another word about the survey, or reasons will be generated to disregard it (e.g., “it’s just a snapshot,” “too few respondents,” “we really shouldn’t be swayed against our better judgment”).

If organizations want genuine exchanges about planning, actions, and evaluations, they should consider making these survey results completely available, edited only for information that is defamatory or confidential — or at least guarantee that the individual tallies will be released regardless of how they come out.

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