Mind the Gap: Understanding Different Generations
Mercedes Pino is the Editor of The Affiliate and the Director of Career Services at the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Young lawyers, senior lawyers, old lawyers, new lawyers—currently, lawyers representing four generations interact, collaborate, hopefully cooperate, and ultimately work together in our bar associations and in the workforce. These four generations span over eighty years of history that encompasses events, political movements, pop culture trends, and technological advances, which have all shaped the way we, as individuals and as collective generations, view the world around us. With that perspective in mind, it is easy to see why confusion and miscommunication come into play when individuals of such diverse experiences and outlooks try to work together.
The four generations interacting today are the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. The exact dates and names of each generation are uncertain, but the events and circumstances that define each as a group are clear. Keeping in mind where each is coming from will go along way to keeping your bar association on an even keel and to getting things done.
The Silent Generation
The name Silent Generation refers to the group of approximately 50 million Americans born roughly between 1925 and 1942. This group came of age during the Great Depression and at the height of the Cold War. Although some of our greatest leaders and a broad collection of artists, writers, musicians, and performers came from this generation, as a whole its members are most often described as hard workers who conformed to the status quo. This generation is generally considered to be conservative in its spending habits, logical in its thinking, and all around traditionalists—a word that is sometimes substituted for the term “Silent Generation.” Not known for taking strong political stances, it bears noting that this generation will most likely never produce an American president. (Both John McCain and Rudolph Guliani are members of this generation.)
The majority of this generation is retired. If you are still encountering them at work, they are generally partners, managers, and of counsel. They believe in hard work and loyalty to an employer, which means that most of them have worked for the same employer most, if not all, of their careers. Members of the Silent Generation work well in teams, but don’t necessarily feel compelled to take the lead. Generally, they are not tech-savvy, which is most likely one of the issues you will face when convincing your senior bar to support funding for new programs. For example, they aren’t likely to support your ideas to move to online CLEs versus in-person trainings.
The Baby Boomers
The term Baby Boomer refers to the group of approximately 80 million Americans who were born after World War II, roughly between 1943 and 1960. The Baby Boomers can technically be divided into two groups—those who came of age during the civil rights movement and those who were too young to be drafted during the Vietnam War—but for the purposes of this article, Boomers will be treated as a whole. In general the Boomers came of age during the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the moon landings, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Unlike the generation that came before them, the Boomers are known as idealists. They rebelled against authority and are known for their protests and sit-ins. As adults, this generation went to work en masse and saw a dramatic increase in the number of women who entered the workforce, as well as an increase in the rate of divorce.
Unlike the Silent Generation, the Boomers, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush serving in office, have produced two presidents so far. (Because the dates that define the Boomer generation are not definite, whether or not Barack Obama is a member is under debate.)
Accounting for a great majority of the work force, Baby Boomers make up over 60 percent of law firm partners. Boomers are incredibly hard working and define themselves through their work. Unlike the preceding generation, they expect to be rewarded for their work with power and higher positions. This generation believes in the time you put in, face time, and may not approve or understand a young lawyer leaving for days at a time for bar activities. The real question is what is going to happen when over 50 million Boomers leave the work force.
Born to the Silent and Baby Boomer Generations, roughly between 1961 and 1981, Generation X is often disregarded for being lazy. Generally raised by single parents or in homes where both parents worked full-time, this generation brought the phrase “latchkey kids” to popularity. This group came of age during Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger tragedy, the beginning of MTV, the early days of the Internet, and the AIDS epidemic.
Firsthand witnesses of what their work-driven parents had to give up, Gen X-ers are known for demanding work/life balance. The members of Generation X serve in mid-level positions, such as junior partners or senior associates. Generally Gen X-ers prefer independent work and a hands-off management style. It is also believed that Gen X-ers are more likely, during a stable economy, to leave a job or switch careers because of dissatisfaction, low pay, or limited potential to move up in the ranks. This view of work is often seen by older generations as a sign of laziness. On the positive side, this generation is viewed as more creative and more savvy both financially and technologically than previous generations. This is also the generation serving in leadership roles for most young lawyer associations.
Originally called Generation Y, this group was born roughly between 1982 and 2002. This is the group currently entering the workforce and joining your bar associations. Known for their hovering parents—so called “helicopter parents”—this generation came of age during the Gulf War, Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Iraq War, and finally when advances in cell phone and the Internet technology brought instant messaging and texting into common use. This generation is considered to be very civic-minded and, although Millennials have yet to determine their legacy, they are credited with coming out and voting for now-President Obama in unprecedented numbers.
Coming up through the ranks in your law firms and bar associations, Millennials are the proverbial new kids on the block. Something to keep in mind when managing Millennials is that they like feedback. They like to know how they are doing and how they can improve. Also, they are accustomed to working in groups and are very adept at multi-tasking. Most important to your bar programming, this generation likes to network—whether online or in person. The key is to provide Millennials with opportunities to build their networks.
As you can see, a lot can and has happened in eighty years. Think about how your view of work or even your bar budget would change if you had grown up during the Great Depression or had parents who had experienced that kind of financial trauma. Or, how would you view work if you’d practically raised yourself while your parents were out of the house working everyday? Or, would you hover if your child grew up at a time when school shootings were a familiar occurrence? What kind of person would you have become confronted by such an environment?