Robert M. Pirsig, the author of the bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died this week. His death is a milestone for Baby-Boomers even though, technically speaking, Pirsig wasn't one of them. However, reading that book was something of a boomer rite of passage, like taking LSD (as Steve Jobs did) or attending a Grateful Dead concert (Steve Jobs was a huge deadhead).

Boomer cultural icons like Pirsig (and Jobs for that matter) are still relevant to business because unlike previous generations, boomers are remaining in the workforce. Since only a small percentage of boomers have successfully "climbed the ladder," many have already been eclipsed, in terms of power, prestige and position, by their younger counterparts.

Over the past few years, there have been innumerable articles on "How to Manage Millennials," many of which appear to have been written by boomers for boomers. What's been lacking (as far as I can see) is practical advice for Millennials who now must manage employees old enough to be their grandparents.

With that in mind, here are some pointers:

1. Don't expect overnighters.

Back in the day, plenty of baby boomers worked day and night to get a product out the door or to keep a customer happy. However, as people age they lose physical resilience. By the time a body hits 60 years, it takes a week or longer to recover to full functioning after even a single overnighter.

This is not to say that Boomers don't work hard. They and and do. However, they get more done, on average, when they work a regular schedule. While that might seem like a liability in a startup, Boomers are a lot less likely than Millennials to blow off work because they partied the night before. Sometimes slow and steady does win the race.

2. Ask their advice.

Believe or not, most Boomers don't mind worker for a younger manager. However, more than other workers, they deeply resent it when a younger manager assumes that the boomer has nothing of value to contribute.

Partly this is due to their history. Boomers came of age at time when most bosses had a "my way or the highway" management style, in reaction to which the Boomers, as a generation, embraced softer management concepts like "empowerment" and "collaboration."

Boomers also know that their experience has real value. That's especially true when it comes to dealing with people because, while technology changes, people remain very much the same. It's a rare Millennial who understands corporate politics better than an average corporate Boomer. Maturity can be a real asset.

3. Listen to their stories.

Many Boomers will, at the drop of a hat, start talking about how stoned they were when they went to college. While such reminiscences are as pathetic as a Red Corvette, remember that most Boomers had their best years behind them the moment they turned 21. So, humor them a little. It won't kill you.

Incidentally, the hardest part of listening to such stories is the realization that that while the Boomers were getting blitzed, they were (or more likely their parents were) paying less than $5,000 a year for tuition and living expenses. If that raises your hackles, consider this: the Boomers also had to suffer through the Disco era. So it all evens out.

4. Let them believe they're still rebels.

Many Boomers believe that since they were "radicals" fifty years ago, they must still be "radicals" today. In some cases (Bernie Sanders comes to mind), it's a realistic perception. In most cases (Hillary Clinton comes to mind), it's a denial of how completely their generation kowtowed to the corporate world.

It's within such denial that we find Boomer nostalgia for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, not to mention Be Here Now and The Whole Earth Catalog. Deep in the heart of every Boomer is the thought that they might, someday, take a deeply meaningful road trip, not in a Winnebago but on a motorcycle. Like that's ever going to happen.

Anyway, the Boomers' belief in their fundamentally rebellious nature is ultimately harmless. In fact, that belief allows them to rest on their laurels ("I marched on the Pentagon in '68") rather than try to make today's world a better place. Boomers are perfectly happy to implicitly support your status quo, provided you don't throw it their faces that they long ago capitulated.

5. Don't get cocky about technology.

If there's one certain way to irritate Boomers, it's to imply that they're not capable of understanding technology because they "didn't grow up using social media."

This might be a valid argument if there were something deeply mysterious about social media or, alternatively, that Millennials are genetic mutants perfectly adapted to the online world. In fact, social media is extremely simple to master and the jargon (like all jargon) is easily assimilated.

While some Boomers might not be as familiar or comfortable with a specific application as some younger folk, consider this: the world's most effective tweeter is a boomer: Donald Trump. Whether you agree with him or not, there's no question Trump "gets" social media... with a vengeance.

And since I'm on the subject, try not blame the Boomers too much for Trump, the Clintons and George W. Bush. After all, the Boomers were also responsible for Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and... just a second... uh... hmmm... Madonna! Yeah, Madonna! So there.

Published on: Apr 26, 2017
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