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Managing Baby Boomers - 17 January 2013

It was after dark, and Walter and Madge were going for a stroll on a balmy summer’s night. As they walked, they noticed an animal further away sitting on a fence in a barnyard. Walter thought it looked like a small cat but Madge thought it was a large bird. They made a friendly bet between them, agreeing to figure out who was right by throwing a pebble in the animal’s direction. Upon hearing the pebble hit the fence, the animal would either run away, proving it was a cat, or it would fly away, proving it was a bird.

So, Walter picked up a pebble from the ground and threw it towards the fence where the sound of the stone hitting the wall made the animal rise into the air and fly away. Madge was right – it was a bird. She turned to Walter with a smile, ready to claim her prize, when Walter said: “You know, my dear, that’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen a cat fly”.

There’s a lesson in that old folk tale about the way we view the world, the objects within it, and the people that inhabit it. What one person sees as a cat, another sees as a bird. What one person sees as ethical, another sees as immoral. What one person thinks is easy, another thinks is difficult.

And so it is with Baby Boomers in the workplace. Lately, it seems as though the emphasis in many organisations has moved away from how to engage Generation Y and more towards how to manage Baby Boomers. But an accurate perception of what a Boomer actually is can be very hard to pin down.

According to a review of generational research conducted at Southern Cross University, Baby Boomers are supposed to be diligent, loyal and hard-working employees who prefer a stable work environment. They want to be given directions by their boss and to work within teams. They’re motivated by money and recognition, but dislike change and technology.

And yet you probably know plenty of Boomers who are nothing like that description. In many cases, they’re more like the stereotypical description of Gen Ys who, according to the University of South Carolina, are social, digital, ambitious, and crave influence and personal development. They also want meaningful jobs, a work/life balance and flexibility.

So, if Boomers can be just like Gen Ys, and Gen Ys can be just like Boomers, one of the riskiest things you can do is to manage by generation because you might end up relying on the incorrect stereotype. That’s why you should:

- Forget what motivates each generation; focus instead on what motivates each individual.
- Forget what each generation expects; focus instead on what each individual expects.
- Forget each generation’s characteristics; focus instead on each individual’s characteristics.

Because, sometimes, what looks like a bird might actually be a cat that flies.


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