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How millennials should deal with baby boomers at work

Advice on how to attract and manage millennial employees has become a fixture of business journalism and corporate reports. Thanks to extensive research, we know that millennials may come to the workplace with “a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination,” as the New York Times explained recently.

But what happens when baby boomers dominate your office culture? What are the best practices for handling their Luddism and fragile egos?

In the absence of reliable intelligence and seminars on the topic, millennials have had to invent coping mechanisms for working alongside their elders. Because millennials — according to many business-section articles — may be more comfortable on digital platforms than with face-to-face communication, I asked them to share what they've learned via Twitter. Respondents quoted below are all working professionals age 33 or younger.

First, it's important to never assume that your baby-boomer colleagues, born between 1946 and 1964, are unfamiliar with new technology. It's far more likely that they've read about it, tried it once and decided they hate it. Therefore, it's important not to offer a technology-based solution to every workplace problem — think old-school too. And don't talk to boomers as if their methods (even the ancient ones) are stupid. Keep it constructive. Suggest ways to optimize without remaking their entire process.

If you do find yourself demonstrating how to use a new digital tool, Chelsea Reil suggested, “NEVER say, ‘This is so easy.’” Recognize that baby boomers have a lot of fear and anger about technology, and tread gently — even in the midst of a reply-all disaster or an ill-advised joke about the pointlessness of Instagram. As Christina McDermott explained, “There are people there who want to learn things like social media but don't have the confidence.”

In a boomer-majority office, it's often necessary to ignore mild but routine sexism, cautioned many millennial women. Remember that some boomers joined the workforce before anti-harassment policies were created. For sexist transgressions that seem too small to take to HR, millennials may want to establish a group text thread — a safe space for venting.

On a similar note, studies show that boomer men are likely to subconsciously favor younger employees who look like they do. Millennial men will want to keep an eye out for this behavior, and recognize their (unfair) comparative advantage.

If you're lucky enough to work with boomers who are concerned about systemic sexism, racism, ableism, classism and other important -isms, you may find that they're nevertheless confused about queer issues and can't quite grasp the problem with so-called microaggressions. But don't mock their clueless questions. At her last job, Elena Potter saw these queries as educational opportunities: “I wanted them to know it was safe to ask, and I would guide them toward respectful language and understanding around basic stuff.”

Open communication — and the occasional after-work beer or midday coffee session — is vital. “Understand it's a learning process,” McDermott said. “See what skills you can swap rather than chiding them for not 'getting it.'” Brittney McNamara agreed, adding, “Listen to them and they will listen to you.”

Millennials may find that baby-boomer self-esteem has declined precipitously in response to rapid societal change. It's difficult to deal with that kind of emotional baggage when you're trying to get work done, but a few solicitous questions go a long way. Imani Oakley advised, “Ask them how they did it — baby boomers love to be heard and admired.” April Quioh has noticed that her boomer colleagues have a “jones for humility,” so it's best to display a willingness to learn from them.

It's also important to signal to your boomer colleagues that you're aware of American history prior to 1990, without threatening their conviction that lived experience is invaluable. Of course you've listened to Fleetwood Mac, know who Richard Nixon is, and have heard that dad-joke about how “This must be the local!” when the elevator stops at every floor. Instead of insisting that you're already quite familiar with these cultural touchstones, however, just chuckle gently or ask a follow-up question about Lindsey Buckingham.

Restraint, millennials on Twitter agree, is indispensable, even when boomers aren't showing any. Older colleagues may drop comments such as, “I have children your age!” Under no circumstance should you point out that you have parents their age. Just smile and don't stop smiling for the duration of your employment. If you are tempted to roll your eyes, carefully fix your gaze on your computer until the feeling has passed. The modern workplace functions best when employees of all ages are able to avoid making a big deal about the comments that annoy them most. Headphones help.

Finally, remind yourself, like Anne Brown, that you'll “probably be old and lame someday too.” Or, as Tim Brack put it, “remember that you'll be in their shoes in the end... complaining about the latest generation.”

Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion. She is a millennial.

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 25, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "How to handle baby boomers at work" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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