WHY BUSTERS HATE BOOMERS There's a new generation gap, and it can hurt a company's effectiveness. To overcome the tension, begin by understanding each side's point of view.
By Suneel Ratan

(FORTUNE Magazine) – HATE TO BREAK this to you, boomers, but among twentysomethings gathering in bars, coffee houses, and Lollapalooza festivals across America, bashing you folks has become the new national pastime. Some of it is playful -- surely we've all heard enough about the Sixties -- but much of it is deadly serious. The beef is that boomers seemed to get the best of everything, from free love to careers, while today's young people get AIDS and McJobs. If the sound of young people whining sounds annoyingly familiar, as from time immemorial, listen closer. This time it's different. Unlike their boomer siblings, Generation X, as the new crop have taken to calling themselves, from the title of a Douglas Coupland novel, aren't rebelling against the government or the culture. Instead, today's kids (whose numbers include the author of this story) are up in arms over economic and career prospects that look particularly bleak -- with boomers as the targets of their resentments. That makes the workplace center-stage of the twentysomethings' rebellion, with younger people referring privately to their boomer bosses as ''knotheads and control freaks,'' in the phrase of Jeffrey McManus, a 26-year-old computer instructor. To hear twentysomethings tell it, boomers spend too much office time politicking and not enough time working. Boomer managers claim to be seeking younger employees' input when in reality they couldn't care less what Xers think. Worst of all, boomers seem threatened by young, cheap-to-employ hotshots who come in brimming with energy and -- note well -- superior technological savvy, and thus are doing everything in their power to keep the young'uns down. And while we're at it, with downsizing taking a wicked toll on support staff, can't you boomers do your own faxing? Boomers are more than willing to take on twentysomethings in what's shaping up as a generational grudge match. Xers, fortysomethings say, are too cocky and aren't willing to pay their dues. That complaint is as old as humanity, but other knocks are more particular to the Xers. They aren't loyal or committed to work, detractors say, changing jobs more casually than sex partners and refusing to go that extra mile to do things right. Unlike workaholic boomers, twentysomethings like to play, and they even expect work to be fun. Irony of ironies, the boomer generation that came of age rejecting authority charges the next generation with -- sacre bleu! -- being unwilling to, uh, show appropriate deference to their authority. Interviews with more than 60 Xers and boomers in the business world, as well as with sociologists and management consultants, reveal that a combination of clashing workplace values and the sour economic scene is creating lasting tensions that managers will have to deal with long after hiring has picked up. Faced with working for boomer bosses they find oppressive, many twentysomethings have abandoned corporate America, retreating into slackerdom or striking out on their own as entrepreneurs. The challenge for managers is to figure out ways to capture twentysomethings' enthusiasm to enliven existing companies -- many of which certainly could use an infusion of youthful energy. To chart the generational fault line, throw out textbook definitions that identify boomers as the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 and baby-busters as the 38 million born from 1965 to 1975. Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of two books on generational issues, Generations and 13th Gen, correctly point out that people born after 1960 have difficulty identifying with the coming-of-age experiences of older boomers. They call the generation born from 1961 to 1981 ''13ers,'' denoting their status as the 13th generation since the founding of the republic. Says Strauss: ''Our shorthand is that boomers are too young to remember Roosevelt dying, while 13ers are too young to remember Kennedy's assassination.'' Using Strauss and Howe's definition, 13ers -- by subtracting from boomers' ranks the people born after 1960 -- outnumber boomers 79 million to 69 million. Of course, the still, small voice of the boomer skeptic intones, 32 million of the 13ers are under 21. Just as the times in which they came of age are different, so too are the factors that provoked boomers' and Xers' rebellions. Against a backdrop of unparalleled U.S. economic strength, boomers rose up not only against the Vietnam war but also against a culture and social system they thought repressive. Twentysomethings see themselves as the children of America's economic and social decline. They aren't angry at the Silent and World War II generations that have steered the economy onto the rocks and whose Social Security and Medicare payments threaten to bankrupt the government. To young people, those older generations paid their dues in the Depression, World War II, and Korea. Instead, twentysomethings train their resentments on boomers, whom the younger people see as having coasted through life -- from their Leave It to Beaver childhoods in the 1950s to their current positions in management -- without ever having built anything. Beyond that, twentysomethings identify boomers with the unraveling of American society that seemed to accompany the antiwar movement and the divorce wave that began sweeping across the country in the late 1960s. For a taste of these sentiments, sit down on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., for a drink with Dana Neilsen, 25, an account executive with AAA World magazine. ''We're the generation of divorced families and latchkey homes, and that's a big dose of realism,'' says Neilsen, the child of divorced parents and of a working mother. ''The boomers had elementary schools built for them and then secondary schools and then colleges, and then as they entered the work force, companies made room for them. Now we come along and it seems as if all the resources have been used. Now they've moved into management levels, and they're not going anywhere. Where does that leave us?'' Some Xers, forced into joblessness or underemployment, are downright bitter about the lousy cards they think they've been dealt. Says a disgruntled Xer, a 28-year-old temp for a FORTUNE 500 company in San Francisco who has a master's degree: ''The boomer manager I work for comes in and says, 'Wow, look at my shiny, new, red convertible.' And I'm like, 'Look at my battle-ax '76 Nova.' I mean, I'm a 'burb kid. My parents weren't big spenders, but they gave me a comfortable upbringing, and that's something I feel I could never give my children, if I have any. Baby-boomers drive themselves nutty talking about balancing work and family, but at least they have families.'' NOT ALL Xers blame the boomers entirely for their own frustrations; some instead cite their generation's inflated expectations. San Franciscan Paula Fujimoto, 24, says that paying $13,000 a year in tuition at Chicago's Northwestern University primed her to expect better than what she came to be in most of her first jobs: a glorified secretary. Even now, two years after graduation, she is settling for minimum wage -- that's $4.25 an hour -- trying to prove herself to a public relations firm. ''I was frustrated because I grew up in a nice, upper-middle-class suburb, I studied hard, I did all the things you're supposed to do to get into a good school, and it was like people chose to ignore the fact I was intelligent,'' she says. Concludes Fujimoto, who still lives at her parents' home: ''Our generation is way too cocky.'' Adds her friend 29-year-old My Tien Vo: ''We've been significantly humbled.'' Columnist Stanley Bing, the pseudonym of a 42-year-old executive too weak- kneed to let his real name be associated with his views, says Xers haven't been humbled nearly enough. ''I didn't make more than $8,000 a year until I was 30,'' says Bing. ''Instead of realizing that you eat dirt until you decide to get serious, you're whining. We didn't whine. We knew what it was to be young, poor, and striving.'' The kids take remarks like these as emblematic of a smug boomer complacency about the difficulties young adults encounter today. Since 1968, when the Head Boomer, Bill Clinton, graduated from Georgetown, the annual cost of attending a four-year public university has risen 39% after inflation, to $6,500. Private university costs are up 94%, to $19,300. Despite the baby bust, universities are loosing 1.6 million newly minted bachelor's, professional, and doctoral degree recipients into the job market each year, 58% more than during the late 1960s. Yet employment in managerial and technical fields has grown only an average of 310,000 jobs annually over the past two years, compared with an average of 1.8 million jobs each year during the 1980s. Hiring may pick up again one day, but to people coming out of degree programs now, the outlook is bleak. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that nearly one-third of college graduates from the classes of 1990 through 2005 will take jobs whose content doesn't really require a degree, up sharply from 19% in 1980. TO HEAR twentysomethings tell it, boomer pinheadedness in the workplace runs far beyond lack of empathy to encompass a range of behaviors that can make working for people in their late 30s and 40s oppressive. To the over-50 set, some of the complaints will seem silly, such as boomer vs. twentysomething clashes over dress and appearance. But such conflicts are serious to Xers, who brand them a symptom of boomer control-freakishness. Recounts an Xer employee of a Midwestern consultancy: ''Last year I had my hair shaved on the sides so you could see my scalp. My 42-year-old boss went to see the human resources manager about whether she could send me home until it grew back. This woman says she's a flower child. She still goes to see the Rolling Stones, even though now she pays a broker $400 for tickets. And she's worried about my haircut?'' Far worse is young workers' perception that many boomers seem more caught up in maneuvering for status in an organization than in working. Towers Perrin consultant Margaret Regan and David Cannon, a doctoral student at London Business School who has conducted extensive research on Generation X in the workplace, report independently that in focus group after focus group, twentysomethings' biggest complaint about their boomer managers is the politicking in which they engage. Says Cannon: ''Younger people want to make a contribution, and not a vague one, and they don't want to waste a lot of time. They see boomers, and not so much the senior people, as politicking and maneuvering and doing a lot of unnecessary make-work.'' Xers FORTUNE interviewed aren't so naive as to think politics can be banished from the workplace. What amazes them is the degree to which scrapping for position and control can interfere with a company's work. A 29-year-old programmer for a Southern California software company described how a power struggle among the boomer managers overseeing development of a product delayed a planned 12-month project for a year. The key villain, he says, was a middle-age vice president who insisted on making every decision -- even if the staff had to wait weeks for her schedule to clear so she could weigh in. Says the programmer: ''It's a bottom-line issue, but they ignore it and allow politics to drive decisions that could eventually cost them their jobs or their companies.'' That's what happened to the vice president, who was laid off when the company recently retrenched. Twentysomethings see another aspect of their bosses' politicking in autocratic management that denies Xers a voice or the feeling that they have any ownership of their work. ''For the young person, the attitude is, 'Just tell me what you want to do and leave me alone,' '' says consultant Regan. ''Obviously the boss above them wants more direction and control.'' What really grates on Xers is when bosses publicly avow participatory management but then cling to their old hierarchical ways. Says Megan Wheeler, 31, who has started her own software company in San Diego: ''At the other places I worked they would tell you that you could have input into all these choices about hardware and software, but when it came down to the final decision, it didn't matter at all.'' This leaves a thick residue of cynicism among Xers that kicks in when their bosses seem to find God in nostrums such as Total Quality Management. The young employee of the Midwestern consulting firm recalls, ''A couple of weeks ago we rolled out a group vision and mission statement. Then the partner asked us what we thought. I mean, what did she expect us to say? I was sitting there thinking, You know, it's a miracle you're getting paid for this.'' PUT IT ALL together and you can get some pretty disaffected people. ''In the Eighties there was a lot of this same silliness, but at least you could earn a lot of money,'' says Deroy Murdock, 29, who in 1991 was laid off from ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in New York and has since prospered as an independent marketing and media consultant. ''Today, with wage stagnation the way it is, people's patience for nonsense has hit the floor.'' What Xers don't see is that the same economic distress is often the source of what they perceive as doltish boomer behavior. Consultant Regan says that in a focus group of boomer managers, participants admitted that the advent of downsizing as the new corporate religion had made them so obsessed with keeping their jobs that career development for employees had gone out the window. ''They weren't proud of it,'' Regan says. ''From their perspective it has to do with the struggle for survival. They feel the pyramid was flattened and that they won't get the same opportunities as the people before them. At the same time, they don't feel the freedom that the twentysomethings have.'' Margey Hillman, 44, director of multimedia programs for an educational software firm in San Diego, agrees that the fear among her boomer colleagues is palpable -- and that much of it is focused on their twentysomething employees. ''Middle management is middle-aged, and we're scared,'' Hillman says. ''A lot of us have been sitting on our asses for ten years. We don't know how to do whatever it is we did to get where we are in the first place, and we've let our skills wither. Now, along come these young people who not only know how to do what middle managers do and are current on the technology, they have no respect for middle managers and they won't tolerate us not doing it.'' But don't give Xers credit for too much insight. Hillman says their complaints about politics and what seem to be arbitrary, control-freak decisions by boomer managers are based on what she calls ''smart innocence'' -- a nice way of saying twentysomethings are naive. ''Say you've been on the job for a year or two, and there's an argument over the kind of software package you're going to use for something,'' Hillman explains. ''The younger worker doesn't know that the reason you're using a particular program is because the president of the company is sleeping with the president of another company. You're not going to explain this to them, so they say, 'This other package will help me work two to three times faster,' and I end up saying, 'We're going to use this other one because I picked it.' '' The boomers also give voice to the age-old complaint heard every time a new crop of youngsters enters the workplace: that those whippersnappers aren't patiently learning how the game is played -- or waiting their turn. Either they come into a company and expect that, in short order, they should be running it, or they always seem to be looking for something better to come along and are thus disloyal. Says Barry Horowitz, 46, director of international transportation at Nike in Portland, Oregon: ''You have to be prepared to start at the bottom. People coming out of college today think they don't have to start at the bottom and work their way through the system.'' What's different this time is that it appears to Xers -- and pretty much everyone else -- that lifetime employment is a thing of the past. Therefore, twentysomethings ask, where will loyalty and dues-paying get us? Consider Jason James, 26, who has been temping for a year on a technical support desk at an IBM subsidiary in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father has spent his career at the computer giant, but James has no similar expectation. ''There are career IBMers in my area being laid off, and they're shocked,'' says James, who graduated from the University of North Carolina. ''They thought they had a job for life, and I don't get it. IBM only would give me a + one-year job, so it's hard to be sympathetic. Maybe it's because I'm young -- I'm able to adapt, I'm current on new technology, and I'm willing to work harder for less. They can get me for $13 an hour, while the full-time people make a lot more than that and get benefits, and some of them don't work as hard.'' Faced with that lack of security and the prospect of working for bosses they can't stand, many twentysomethings figure it's simply better to take advantage of their youth and risk going it alone. Look at Megan Wheeler, the aforementioned programmer, and Aaron Singer, 25, who last year founded Ad Hoc Technologies, an educational software firm in La Jolla, California. With no capital beyond Singer's stripped-down Apple Macintosh SE, they got a consulting job and invested the proceeds in new equipment. They've taken in over $100,000 over the past year consulting for other companies while they work on their first product, an interactive CD-ROM-based game. Singer hooked up with Wheeler, whom he knew from his childhood in Enid, Oklahoma, after poking around New York for two years looking for a job and doing stints as a computer consultant. Wheeler, an experienced software developer, started off her 20s as a professional ballet dancer in New York and Austin, Texas, then got into programming as her knees began to give out. Her previous job was as a $34,000-a-year programmer for another San Diego software developer. ''Here it's not just a feeling that we're going to work,'' Singer says. ''We're creating something that means a lot to us.'' IN A SEEDY NEIGHBORHOOD on the northwest side of Chicago, another young entrepreneur, Vincent Cobb, 27, works out of a converted loft that's also his apartment. Cobb's product is a foam-rubber, plastic-topped deskpad for the ''mice'' that are now standard equipment on most computers. His innovation is to cover them with art images such as Da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's Starry Night. After graduating from Miami University in Ohio, Cobb worked for a year selling computers at Nynex Business Centers and then for an outfit that makes scheduling software. ''If Michael Dell hadn't started his business out of his dorm room in college, he would have shortly after he had gone to work and gotten a taste of what corporate life is like,'' says Cobb of Dell Computer's wunderkind 28- year-old CEO and founder, the ultimate icon for Xer entrepreneurs. ''It's frustrating trying to launch a business, but it's better than working for a big company that's boring, dry, dull, and conservative, or for a small company that's stifling.'' Smart managers will see that taking what Xers say seriously not only will promote generational comity in the workplace but may also give companies a competitive edge. Consultant David Cannon says, ''The fact is that Generation X is very well built for the organization of today. A company that gets into new products and does things differently is exhilarating to younger people.'' One approach to harnessing twentysomethings' energy is to create an entrepreneurial environment in which they can thrive. At Hewlett-Packard in Sunnyvale, California, 30-year-old marketer Laura Demmons is a lead member of a so-called garage team that's developing a communications product to be launched in early 1994. Under the garage concept H-P acts as a venture capitalist, in this case giving the team a $4 million budget -- and virtually complete autonomy. Demmons says her road hasn't been pothole-free. ''The older managers look at us as these young whippersnappers. I was frustrated. I felt like I could run circles around the managers, and I was doing it for less than half the money. I was going to leave for a startup when the vice president of the group called me in. I told him, 'I don't fit in here.' And he said, 'But you do fit in here,' and I was offered this garage opportunity.'' After extensive focus- group research, Demmons and her teammates formulated a business plan for ''a really hot communications software product.'' Still, Demmons ran into trouble when the manager to whom she nominally reports, 38-year-old Kevin Schofield, tried to bring her back under his control. ''Kevin was kind of stuck in the old hierarchy. But I can just see him. It's like, I was this creature. I didn't want to be mean to him, but I just wanted a field to run in,'' says Demmons, who counts horseback riding among her hobbies. The situation was fixed by restoring her autonomy, and Demmons says Schofield ''in hindsight, has been one of my biggest supporters.'' For his part, Schofield says, ''To the extent there are frustrations, I understand them. That's why we're doing things that are different.'' Demmons's conclusion: ''This product is so good. It's more than just the money that's important -- it's the ownership question. It's like, please let me do this job. There are so many young people who are so good at what they do.'' THE BOTTOM LINE with twentysomethings is that they'll respond if boomer ) managers put meaning into the buzzwords they're prone to mouthing -- empowerment, teamwork, communication. ''You have to have two-way communication to be successful,'' says Cathy Sigismonti, a 28-year-old marketing analyst at IVAC, a San Diego division of Eli Lilly that makes medical devices. ''If you're asking me to do something and you tell me why you need it and what you're going to use it for, maybe I can figure out a way to do it faster,'' Sigismonti says. ''And if I tell you that what you're asking is going to take 100 hours, then maybe you'll decide you don't need it after all.'' Feedback and recognition are other no-brainers that Xers say their boomer managers too often overlook. Says Sigismonti, her finger tapping on a table for emphasis: ''Tell me that I did a good job. Let me know.'' Adds John Doyle, a 31-year-old San Diego programmer: ''We want recognition because when we were growing up the family unit wasn't very strong. It can be financial or something else. At a company event, it could be just pointing someone out and saying their name.'' Xers bring a different set of values to the workplace, values that in many ways are a reaction to the workaholism they associate with their older boomer brethren. Says Margaret Regan: ''In my employee surveys, the factors that predict job satisfaction among people in their 20s is that it be a fun place to work.'' The peril of an un-fun workplace is that Xer employees will consider their jobs no more than a paycheck and will clock out regularly at 5 o'clock, when the real fun begins for them. Says Scott Hess, a 27-year-old Chicago marketing writer: ''The god we're worshipping is not the bottom line -- it's quality of life.'' The moral of this tale is that feeling threatened by Generation X and tightening up is the worst possible reaction for a boomer manager to have toward younger employees. Yes, we kids are impetuous, naive, and just a tad arrogant -- and that's why we need smart but sensitive boomer managers who can smooth our rough edges while channeling our enthusiasm. Ally yourself with us while you can -- or don't be surprised if, one day, you're asking one of us for work.


WHAT BUSTERS HATE ABOUT BOOMERS You're blocking our way. Too much politicking -- not enough work. You're stuck in the old hierarchies. You're not current on technology.

WHAT BOOMERS HATE ABOUT BUSTERS Wait your turn. Can you spell naive? You have no respect for authority. You're right -- stop rubbing it in.