So a boomer and a millennial get on an elevator. Oh, you’ve heard this one?
But this isn’t a joke. This happens all the time. The most disparate of groups find themselves mingling with each other more and more, day in and day out. At the gym, at the market. And most commonly, in the workplace. With more and more boomers holding on to their jobs because they want to—or have to—there is ample opportunity for the two to interact.
Of course, generation gaps have existed from time immemorial. (Isaac to Abraham: "You seriously want to do what to me? Look, if you don’t like the way I keep my room, we can discuss it.")
But this isn’t a mere gap. What we have here are two groups of people that view life very differently. It’s kind of like you say potato, and I say potahto. But you can’t call the whole thing off.
You might attribute this to modern advances over the last two decades. But these advances haven’t been greater than in other comparable periods. After all, boomers grew up with cars, airplanes and televisions—the stuff of science fiction for previous generations. But all these were merely upgrades to what was already in common use: the horse and buggy, trains and radios. And as innovative as these advances were, they were easily embraced by an older generation.
But recent technological breakthroughs that millennials take for granted are of the type that completely overtake lifestyles. So groundbreaking that they’ve become routine, these breakthroughs have essentially penetrated and altered the DNA of the millennials. And even though boomers seem to have adapted to all that is new and exciting, it’s just not the same as having been born into it. Try losing a foreign accent after moving to the U.S. at any age past puberty. You can become an expert in the English language, but speak two words and everyone knows you’re not from these parts.
Boomers can boast about their techie bona fides, and about being early adopters. ("Hey. I was only 28 when I brought home an Apple II and stored all my files on floppy disks.") But all that toil and dedication is not fully appreciated by a generation who recall their earliest computer endeavors as googling George Washington on the family’s laptop to complete a third grade Presidents Day assignment.
So what to do? First of all, these differences in life experiences need not be a reason for acrimony or rifts between boomers and millennials in or out of the workplace. Precisely because their experiences are so different, it’s very likely that each group would find the other’s life stories unique and edifying, even enlightening and entertaining. It would be very much the same as learning about other cultures and their rituals. The type of thing you always watch on the History Channel and A&E. And you don’t need cable.
They could begin by focusing on obvious and apparent differences, just as one might ask a woman hailing from Mumbai to describe the variety of items that comprise her wardrobe.
Take the elevator situation. The boomer enters carrying a briefcase, eschewing the ubiquitous backpack found on every millennial. This is perfect for a teachable and learnable moment. The boomer can explain that a backpack is just not his style. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. But he has a lifelong and personal connection to the briefcase. And by the way, back in the day, backpacks were only worn by hikers. A backpack was a way to carry your camping supplies. For pencils and books, you got a briefcase. Eventually, you gravitated to a more businesslike attache case, and continued to use one as you moved up the corporate ladder, with each new one getting bigger and more expensive.
A millennial would no doubt find such a story heartwarming. And then relate his own inspiring story. Perhaps it would be about his choice in footwear. Noticing the boomer’s black leather shoes, or perhaps some unpretentious running shoe—not that there’s anything wrong with it—the millennial will point out that his association with shoes that are bold and bright go back to his childhood and his first pair of toddler shoes. He’s always worn shoes to match his mood. And why not? Long ago, he learned about Henry Ford’s Model T coming in any color as long as it was black. But society is long removed from the Model T. There is no reason shoes should not be equally progressive.
Clearly, this portends the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And to cement their newfound affinity, the boomer and the millennial could head out to a favorite watering hole at the end of the workday. There the boomer could relate his preference for single malt Scotch, while the millennial waxed rhapsodic over the virtues of small batch bourbon.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it.
Steve Lipman is a Pulitzer Prize-worthy writer residing in Los Angeles. He chooses to write on anything that interests him, always keeping his style lighthearted.