Generation scrap

When Bill Horne sauntered into an evening meet-and-greet being held by a local packaging company in search of fresh IT talent, the retired computer engineer knew his chances of leaving the event with a job offer were slim.

Now 56, Horne had spent 25 years working in the telecommunications industry before retiring from Verizon in 2002. Six years later, Horne says he knew that the IT field had changed dramatically, rendering him “out of step” with cutting-edge IT.

But after watching his retirement savings dwindle and the demand for small side projects disappear, Horne says he was “economically motivated” to re-enter the workforce. A casual meet-and-greet seemed like a perfect opportunity for the baby boomer to get his feet wet.

Horne was in for a shock, however. Expecting an informal recruiting event, he found himself in the thick of what “felt like a discotheque,” surrounded by throngs of aggressive twentysomethings jostling for the attention of senior-level managers and barking into their cell phones.

“They were talking a lot, the noise was deafening, and the atmosphere was loud, confused and not very businesslike,” Horne recalls.

His experience is far from unique. Throughout busy job fairs, crowded boardrooms and hectic IT departments across the U.S., a battle royal is brewing between aging baby boomers and fresh-faced millennials– two distinct generations with differing work styles, conflicting cultures and disparate skill sets.

On the one side stand the boomers: IT veterans valued for their unwavering work ethic, vast experience and institutional memory. On the opposing side, the millennials: Web 2.0 natives with technology in their DNA who would rather text and Twitter than talk and who have little patience with the way things have always been done.

IT managers are facing a tough predicament: a head-on collision between two vastly talented yet differing generations, both vying for full-time employment in a fast-shrinking economy.

And it’s happening everywhere. “Baby boomers coming back into the market is very common,” says Brooke Kline, chief technology officer at iBank, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based money management firm. “At the same time, we have just as many millennials coming out of college looking to explore new opportunities.”

Deciding whom to hire — or lay off — requires sorting through a minefield of competing technical expertise, business acumen, cultural preferences and career expectations.

New Rules

Baby boomers and millennials might have eased by each other in the workplace with no clash at all, as boomers gradually retired and millennials moved in and up the ranks. But a faltering economy changed all that.

Over the past 15 months, the stock market has wiped out $2 trillion in Americans’ retirement savings, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And even before the financial crisis hit full force, a February 2008 survey by job site revealed that nearly three out of five U.S. workers age 50 or older were planning to look for work elsewhere after retiring from their current jobs.

And that can put them into competition with candidates their children’s ages, says Horne, because once an employee retires, he loses his seniority. “I have realistic expectations that I’m not going to be appointed vice president,” he says.

As boomers struggle to resuscitate their careers and millennials flood the workforce, IT managers are having to rethink what it means to be an IT professional and to weigh the relative value of traditional and new-age skills.

That’s not always easy. For example, millennials have a tendency to eat, sleep and breathe Web 2.0 technologies, and the value of that may not be immediately clear to a hiring manager.

“When my boomer colleagues see me texting, blogging and using wikis, they see it as social” as opposed to work-related, says Brett Gardner Bonner, a 26-year-old engineering specialist at FedEx Corp. “But they’re just tools I use to achieve higher results by gaining consensus and connecting with others.”

Yet it’s precisely these tools — and users’ proficiency levels — that are dividing the generations into warring factions. “A millennial is more likely to communicate electronically or be more involved in social networking,” says Sherry Aaholm, FedEx’s vice president of IT.

Take, for example, Bonner, who practically showers with his BlackBerry Storm and claims his familiarity with Web 2.0 tools is “almost innate.”

He says he regularly relies on wikis, Twitter and microblogging services like Yammer to communicate with colleagues and swap information. “Boomers prefer conference calls and e-mails, whereas I prefer texting and wikis,” says Bonner.

But it’s not just the Web.

“There’s a lot of new technology — like agile software development and open source — that young kids have picked up, whereas some of the older folks are still working on migrating,” says Jeff Schuster, a recruiter at IT consulting company Halo Group LLC in Novi, Mich.

Boomers are better known for their expertise in more traditional technologies such as IT infrastructure and operating systems. That’s good news for FedEx, which is always on the lookout for IT professionals with the skills needed to support its largely mainframe-based package-tracking system. But that type of expertise can limit boomers’ prospects elsewhere, Schuster says.

And it’s not just about skills; attitude also plays a major role in who gets hired. For example, millennials’ eagerness to adopt new technologies — and some boomers’ tendency to resist doing so — may make recruiters think twice before bringing on an older candidate in need of extensive training.

Making peace in a culture clash

Information technology managers are discovering ways to avert bloodshed without sacrificing the wisdom of IT veterans or the prowess of fresh talent.

FedEx treats the boomer-millennial conundrum as part of its overall commitment to corporate diversity. To help aging IT pros and twentysomethings work together, FedEx has introduced informal programs in which experienced employees mentor junior counterparts.

Veterans gain first-hand exposure to millennials’ social-network-driven work habits, while junior workers receive a crash course in valuable technologies such client/server systems.

At Serena Software, IT manager Tom Clement says harmony entails “acknowledging employees as individuals” and addressing their unique needs, limitations and skills. For example, Serena’s IT staffers may work from home when the need arises.

And Web 2.0-challenged employees must spend an hour a week on Facebook to familiarize themselves with social networking tools.

Clement credits CEO Jeremy Burton for “trying to change the culture of our company to be much more relevant to the younger generation.”

IBank encourages its employees to host Web conferences and dabble in instant messaging and Skype as part of CTO Brooke Kline’s strategy to accommodate the opposing “life structures” of boomers and millennials.

“We’re trying to convey to [boomers] that you don’t need a sit-down meeting to have a discussion,” Kline says. The company also holds an informal open forum every Tuesday at noon for IT workers young and old.

Although mentor programs, flextime arrangements and weekly get-togethers can foster greater collaboration between boomers and millennials, everyone recognizes that intergenerational disparities take time to resolve.

“The boomer folks are a little more fixed in their ways and not as open to learning a new set of technology skills,” says Aaholm. “That’s the difference with the millennial generation — they’re willing to expand their skill base.”

This eagerness to learn is giving many millennials a leg up on the competition. But there’s a managerial flip side to consider. Young IT workers who are bold enough to take on new technologies are also more likely to be impatient with the constraints of traditional workplaces.

“There’s an expectation on the part of millennials that the people who are managing them won’t just see them as cogs in the machine but will be flexible with them and take their preferences into account,” says Tom Clement, 54, an IT manager at application development firm Serena Software Inc. in Redwood City, Calif.

That kind of rugged individualism delivers enormous value to pioneering companies such as Serena, which is adopting innovative development trends, such as “business mashups” or composite applications, to stay ahead of the curve.

“It takes guts to build mashups, and that’s what is great about the millennials,” says Clement. “They’ve got the guts to go in and create a new application, whereas [boomers] aren’t as emboldened.”

Businesses that expect all employees to march to the beat of the same drummer, however, may have a tough time reining in millennials’ more spirited work ethic and thirst for experimentation. And millennials’ tendency to mix work with pleasure is another factor that could influence the hiring decisions of IT managers.

“Millennials really want a work-life balance that’s seamless; they want to be able to communicate with their friends while they’re working,” says Kline.

The older generation, in contrast, wants “to be productive from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and focus only on work.” Those tendencies recently convinced Kline to hire a boomer — not a millennial — for a help desk maintenance job with the steady hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“When we looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, we felt that a baby boomer was more equipped to handle that type of position,” says Kline.

Cherry-picking aside, companies must still make some cultural adjustments to successfully mix millennials and boomers in the workplace. Your company’s willingness to make those adjustments will affect its ability to recruit and retain talent.

“From a baby boomer’s standpoint, it’s a big change to see a really bright guy come in at 10:30 a.m. wearing shorts and sneakers and start work,” says Kline. “Breaking down that barrier is a big challenge.”

Just ask Horne, who dedicated his entire career to a single employer. “Kids coming out of school have no work ethic,” he says. “They think life is a video game and that you get paid because you show up.”

John Martin, a 62-year-old iBank quality assurance specialist, is more tactful. “My approach to working is much different than that of today’s millennials,” he says. “A great number of them think there are unlimited jobs out there, and so they approach work a little more casually than people of my generation.”

Defining ‘Professional’

It’s this perception among boomers that deeply offends Nathan Williams, a 30-year-old Serena software engineer who identifies with the millennial generation.

“There’s the misconception that we’re just not professional. But the truth is, we have different ideas of what it means to be professional, and a casual attitude is part of that.”

In fact, Williams says millennials’ easygoing disposition encourages creativity and “a willingness to break boundaries” that contributes to tasks such as product development.

Millennials’ casual approach to work can backfire in risky ways that managers also need to consider, however.

According to a February 2008 study by security systems provider Symantec Corp., when asked whether they feel entitled to use whatever application, device or technology they like, regardless of source or corporate IT policies, 69% of millennials said yes while only 31% of other workers did.

Millennials and boomers may have to agree to disagree about what it means to be an IT professional today. But for IT managers, the trick is to weigh what each generation brings to the table and match the individual to the job. And that’s a skill that they need to develop quickly.

“The pressure on front-line managers nowadays with the millennials coming into the workforce is greater than it’s ever been,” says Lisa Orrell, a generational relations expert and author of Millennials Incorporated (Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2008). And, she warns, “the competition is only going to get more fierce as time goes on.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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