Understanding baby boomers in the workplace

Written by Cyndi Sax, VP of Development Services

As WWII came to a conclusion, I imagine the global community giving thanks, heaving a big sigh of relief, and for many, relaxing into the comfort of peace and safety, confidently getting on with their lives. And then…BOOM! Between 1946 and 1964, the world population exploded with the birth of an estimated 1.1 million babies who became known as the baby boomer generation. Boomers comprised the highest percentage of the population until they were surpassed by millennials in 2019, and as such, have had a tremendous impact on many aspects of life. As a member of this diverse generation, I’m happy to guide you through some interesting facts, trends, and personal experiences that exemplify this generation as a whole, but more specifically some defining characteristics of baby boomers in the workplace.

Growing up as a baby boomer

Boomers were born to and raised largely by members of the silent generation, known for their tendency to be conservative traditionalists. In the decades following WWII, the population wasn’t the only thing that was booming. Economies grew exponentially, standards of living increased, and boomer youth became accustomed to a more affluent lifestyle. In the US where I am based, more of us grew up in suburbia, with dads working nine to five, and mothers staying at home to tend to the house and children.

Yet even in that stereotypically comfortable, routine lifestyle, it was impossible to escape the impact of the social changes taking place in the world. By the time the first of the baby boomers approached their teenage years, the political, civil, and social unrest that defined the 1960s in the western world had arrived. Boomers played a significant role in the civil rights movement, feminist movement, Vietnam War protests, university unrest, and “hippie” counterculture.

As a younger member of the baby boomer generation, I can’t claim to have been a hippie or actively engaged in civil protests. I do remember school closing unexpectedly in the middle of the day when US President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. And the divided opinions, heated controversy, and local riots when several years later, the public schools in our community in the southeastern part of the US were desegregated. And of proudly leading the petitioning of the local school board to allow female students to wear pants instead of dresses to school. We were, by the way, successful in our efforts, but had to agree to wearing pants to school only on Fridays. Only proper pants suits were allowed, not jeans. Mine was purple polyester.

The baby boomer generation grew up in front of the television, first black and white, but later with shows being broadcast in ‘living colour.’ Rotary dial telephones could be found in most homes in the US and there were plenty of coin operated public telephone booths if you needed to make a phone call when you were away from home. We listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Roberta Flack, Janis Joplin, and Bruce Springsteen on vinyl, then on cassette tapes or 8-track tapes. More of us completed secondary school and went on to university than in any prior generation.

Characteristics of baby boomers in the workplace

Now the elder generation, baby boomers in the workplace have experienced tremendous change during our careers. Some of the greatest technological advances of the time were products of companies started by technical geniuses of the boomer generation, like Steves Wozniak and Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to name a few. We’ve survived the rise and fall and rise again of the tech industry, seen manufacturing revolutionised by robotics, and are now some combination of curious, amazed, and scared silly by artificial intelligence.

Among the other changes that baby boomers in the workplace face are the technological advances that can increase efficiency. Communication methods have progressed from documents typed on an electric typewriter to those produced on a word processor and then, personal computer. Rather than paper documents that were mailed, faxed, or saved on a floppy disc, we now marvel at our ability to share digital documents on a cloud. Yet, many boomers still prefer to have a conversation with others than to communicate by text, instant message, or email.

Our signature work ethic is reflective of how much of our identity is tied up in the work that we do. ‘Workaholic’ is a descriptor that was coined as the first baby boomers hit the workforce, and one that many have lived up to over the course of the past 50 years. Our commitment to work created a generation of ‘latchkey kids,’ in which children returned home from school before their parents returned from work.

Strengths of baby boomers in the workplace

Baby boomers in the workplace are known for loyalty to their employers, their work ethic, and for the fact that their work is often central to their identity. What motivates baby boomers in the workplace? We tend to thrive on the satisfaction of being productive, knowing that we have performed a job well, and being recognised and rewarded for the same.  Perhaps for those reasons, there is a trend for boomers to work beyond the age that our parents did, and to be proud of our productivity, stamina, professional relationships, and teamwork.

Boomers generally respect the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity that younger colleagues bring to the workplace. In spite of our independent spirits, we tend to enjoy collaborative work, pooling resources, and continuous learning. We have had to learn and adapt to the technological advances that younger generations have always known. While baby boomers acknowledge the generational differences in the workplace, we welcome the opportunity to mentor those who are in their early careers, sharing the knowledge and perspectives we have gained through experience. Baby boomers also appreciate learning from those with more practical technical skills than we possess. Mentor/mentee relationships often provide mutually beneficial learning and networking opportunities.

Challenges of baby boomers in the workplace

Many baby boomers in the workplace may be reflecting on how to remain competent and relevant, making the most of the final phase of their career and considering what they would like their legacy to be. Others find it difficult to let go of what has been a lifetime of climbing the corporate ladder from entry level to increasingly more senior roles. They may have different ideas of what work-life balance looks like than their early-career colleagues.

Some baby boomers may find it difficult to let go of workplace norms that were in place for most of their careers and have changed dramatically, especially in the past few years. For example, we may dress more formally versus Gen Z in the workplace. In comparison to millennials and Gen X at work, baby boomers find it more difficult to manage in a virtual environment, and expect a higher degree of formality and respect – a level that we were expected to show to our seniors when we were in the early stages of our careers.

We may be hesitant to ask for help, even if we don’t fully understand how to do something, not wanting to seem incapable or outdated. Baby boomers in the workplace may have a more difficult time with the scope and pace of change common in today’s world, seeming to hold on to ways of doing things that worked in the past and making the false assumption that the same processes and behaviours will be similarly effective today.

Just as the baby boomer generation has modelled diversity in thought, behaviour, values, and preferences throughout our lives, we continue to exemplify diversity in the ‘Third Act’ of our careers. Some of us are invigorated by taking more risks, trying something different, or looking for new meaning in our work. Others lean into retirement by reducing their work hours, passing on responsibilities to others, and looking forward to having more time to focus on family, hobbies, volunteering, and travel. Still others seem determined to work until someone escorts them out the door kicking and screaming. A common theme is the hope that we will leave the places, businesses, and people whom we have touched in a better place for having shared part of our journey, just as we have learned and gained so much along the way.

Editor’s note: As with most thought leadership content, its purpose is to share perspective and generate further discussion. Because everyone’s individual experiences vary, not all experiences and opinions will be the same for each member of the baby boomer generation. 

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