It feels like many boomers are just a bit angry – this can be tough if you are employed by the generation that still currently holds much of the power and sway in the corporate workplace.
As a Generation X, Z or Millennial, as you relate to boomers, it’s easy to roll your eyes, create a new angry boomer meme, or drop the derisive expression, “OK, boomer” It’s also justified to blame all boomers as a generation for failing to take on the hard problems of climate change, affordable housing and social security funding shortfalls that will plague younger generations. But for your personal workplace, when deciding on how to relate to your boomer manager, I believe it’s safer and healthier to adopt Stephen Covey’s mantra, “Seek first to understand.”
Understand that the current cause of boomer anger comes from angst they feel based on the fear of being left behind, unable to keep up with the rapidly changing pace of technology. As the new, accelerated AI powered world rushes forward, boomers feel ill prepared to assimilate, let alone thrive. Let’s face it, Millennials, Gen Z and the Alpha generation have all grown up with computers. They have learned these skills in school and have adapted their thinking style and had endless time as kids to learn the ins and outs of technology as they become digital natives. While “kids” see tech as an integral part of life, boomers have had to adapt at the workplace, as most tech was invented after they graduated college. Trying to understand tech has been something boomers had to learn on the side, while doing their job, not something they learned before they ever held a job. For many boomers, tech is not intuitive, and constant updates are not something they welcome but a nuisance that they fear. It can be intimidating when a boomer watches a teenager, or an employee who looks like a teenager, get an answer from a phone before they have even finished the question!
Rapid social change is difficult too. It can be a challenge for many to agree that gender is a continuum when they have spent an entire life being told differently. It’s hard to ask about appropriate pronouns when you have been saying “you guys” since you were five years old. This doesn’t make boomers correct, but it’s important to understand the difficulty many have accepting change when it means retiring life- long habits.
So, combine anxiety about being slowly left behind, unable to successfully navigate a new technological and social world with the undeniable fact that boomers are not able to avoid aging. Boomers are the first generation to postpone the effects of aging. While sixty is the new forty; physical decline, despite best efforts is unavoidable. Whether its declining eyesight, weaker hearing, mild short tern memory loss, less effective recall, declining physical stamina, or slower reaction time, it is a losing battle that is hard to accept. Hormonal changes can be challenging. Men see a decrease in testosterone beginning around age 40, and women see a decrease in estrogen beginning around age 50, both of which can amplify depression in some people and lead to mood swings. Men especially can mask their depression with anger, leading to “a type eight” outburst of rage in response to a “type two” challenge.
Of course, there is also political polarization aroused by media networks whose profit motive includes the creation of righteous indignation. Couple this with the lingering psychological effects from COVID lock downs with the genuine fear unique to older folks, that contracting Covid could actually end their life rather than be just the small annoyance perceived by many younger people.
Sometimes, boomers just lose their shit! The rage has been building, the loss of control, the fear that every new situation will be beyond their technological ability to navigate is real. Many boomers want their old world back. They want to retire gracefully in the familiar, not enter some brave new world they never could have predicted and definitely would never have chosen!
Let’s dig a little deeper into a boomer’s world and put yourself in their shoes. Remember right or wrong, boomers, have been the kingpins for perhaps longer than they deserve due to the size of their cohort. As they age, they are feeling less welcome, less competent and in less control of a world they thought they “owned.”
Hoping to be treated respectfully, like the last generation in retirement, daily life takes more acumen to succeed. Just a trip down the grocery aisle risks a collision because everyone is heads down scanning the “Safeway app.” If you don’t clip the deals or scan the digital coupon just the right way, you miss the “deals.” Try finding an employee who has the time or acumen to help one figure out a convoluted App – It’s nearly impossible and endlessly frustrating.
Then there are passwords. Find a boomer knows how to work Proton, Dashlane or other Password Managers. The amount of time searching for passwords or dealing with double encryption is enough to put anybody, especially a boomer, over the edge. And let’s not go into any attempt to reach a custom service manager through an endless screen of digital phone prompts. For Millennials this is how the world works, just solve your problem on the web. For a boomer they are used to the old system of personal contact and customer service and help desks that no longer exist!
Imagine this boomer nightmare. They have accidentally left their phone in a hotel room when running out to the car. For the past forty years, they have been used to keeping a hotel key in their pocket. Now it’s all about the electronic key code, a personal code sent by text message. But if you are phoneless, locked out of your room and the front desk is virtual, It’s a pretty bad Catch 22, sleeping on the couch in the lobby! Going somewhere without a phone is something a millennial would never do but for a boomer, it’s an easy mistake. They spent their first 35 years without constantly scrolling a phone and still don’t know how to use many of the I-phone features.
A windows update with lots of cool features might be exciting for Gen Z who may be eager to spend a quick 20-minute learning all the new benefits. But for most boomers, computers are tools, we want them to work the same way every day and updates and upgrades means you have to waste time learning new things you never wanted so you can do your job the same way you did yesterday.
Now go to a new car. You used to use a key, and the car was filled with intuitive dials, buttons and switches. Now it’s right and left swipes just to turn on the heater on and the easily read paper owner’s manual is now all digital. Furthermore, you have to download an app to pay for a parking space, pay a toll or use a pay car charger.
Worst of all? It’s going out to dinner, where the whole goal was to have a face-to-face conversation and escape the tyranny of t phone. But what happens? To read the menu you have to scan a QR code, a challenge in itself for a boomer. Instead of charting around the paper menu, you now have to stare down at your phone, scrolling to decipher a digital menu on a small screen and having difficulty getting back to the appetizer page.
So next time, you want to mock a boomer or cannot understand why they seem grumpy. Just realize that they are facing challenges navigating the new world and give them some grace, it will make everyone’s life better! And do not forget what the boomer lacks in tech-savvy, is usually made up for in spades with her wisdom, experience, perspective, and human relations skills. Boomers grew up with face-to-face contact and conversations aren’t awkward for them. And while their short-term memory might have passed peak, their ability to assimilate facts into wise strategic decisions is still peaking. Together, partnering with boomers, you will make a better team than you ever could individually. You just have to learn to appreciate their strengths and help them out with their tech!
John Dockendorf is a boomer but has spent his lifetime employing millenials and always appreciates their tech guidance which he hopes he can exchange for hard earned wisdom. Dockendorf is the Prinicpal at Dockendorf Consulting which operates in Hood River, Oregon and Hendersonville, NC