Managing Across Generations

Managing Across Generations

Jeff Wolf, President, RCC

Word Count: 914
Time to Read: 3-4 minutes

Younger generations — the so-called Gen Xers and New Millennials — comprise half the U.S. work force. The other half consists of 45% Baby Boomers and 5% veterans, many of whom are charged with motivating newer associates.

But what happens when generations don’t share the same values and beliefs about workplace success?

Business consultant Cam Marston presents new insights into managing across the generational divide in Motivating the "What’s In It For Me?" Workforce (2007, John Wiley & Sons). Now, more than ever, American workers born after 1965 aren’t following in their elders’ footsteps. They have different workplace values and definitions of success.

Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1965, occupy most positions of power and responsibility in law firms. Most of today’s firm practices still reflect the systems and values of their predecessors, the veterans.

Gen Xers and Millennials therefore present unique challenges for Boomers. They aren’t interested in time-honored traditions or "the way things have always been done." Rather, they’re single-mindedly focused on what it takes to get ahead and reach their perceived career destination.

This group shuns past definitions of success: climbing the firm ladder and earning the rewards that come with greater responsibility. The firm ladder, in their view, is irrelevant.

Mature workers and Boomers in leadership positions struggle with these differing values and beliefs, wondering how to motivate their younger colleagues. If promotions, raises and bonuses fail to motivate, then what does the trick?

We can identify several differences in values. The new generation of workers has:

  1. A work ethic that no longer respects or values 10-hour workdays
  2. An easily attained competence in new technologies and a facility to master even newer ones with little discomfort
  3. Tenuous to nonexistent loyalty to any firm
  4. Changed priorities for lifetime goals achievable by employment

The most significant changes in perspective involve time, technology and loyalty.


Different generations value time in distinct ways. For Boomers, time has always been something to invest in the future. They work hard and pride themselves on putting in 55+ hours a week, but they count on future rewards for their efforts. This payout hasn’t always materialized as expected.

Gen Xers and Millennials regard time as something to control, just like money. In fact, to them, time has equal value. Some firms are realizing that time off is a satisfactory trade-off when they can’t pay their younger associates higher salaries in this recessionary period.

For younger workers, time itself is a currency, and they aren’t willing to invest it in a career or job with uncertain dividends. In today’s climate of job insecurity, layoffs and recession, any employment is potentially unstable. “Why put in long hours?” they wonder.


Gen Xers and Millenials eagerly embrace technology. After all, they grew up using computers, beginning in preschool. When they interact with older colleagues who are confused and somewhat fearful of technology, a real role reversal often occurs.

It’s critical for firms to combine the wisdom of experience and the technological savvy of youth to benefit all—and the firm’s bottom line.


Gen Xers and Millenials have many reasons to question authority, rather than bow to it. They don’t automatically believe their leaders tell the truth. They have heard plenty of lies from presidents, legislators and even religious institutions, which bred skepticism.

Instead, younger generations invest their loyalty and trust in individuals. They want to work for the right boss, and they’ll change jobs if they can’t.

The silent generation of mature workers and Boomers never had that luxury. Working for a disagreeable person was something you had to endure.

Firm loyalty has gone out the window. Loyalty to an individual is now the No. 1 reason Gen Xers and Millenials stay at a job, especially during the first three years of employment. Dissatisfaction with a boss is the No. 1 reason they quit.

Changed Management Practices

In the late 60s and 70s, individual expression in dress and language appeared for the first time in law firms. Gray flannel suits and button-down shirts, the de facto uniform for mature workers and older Boomers, fell by the wayside. Personal possessions began decorating offices.

Today, expressions of tastes and preferences are still alive and well within the context of most firms’ rules. Although limited, individuals can express their tastes through personal styles in clothing and office décor.

Questions to Ask Younger Generations

What is required to lead young people who believe Boomers are outdated and out of touch? Leaders of firms and practice management groups should ask themselves:

  1. What do young associates want from their jobs, bosses and work experience?
  2. How do salary, benefits and promotion opportunities affect loyalty?
  3. How do my young associates define themselves? How do one’s job and the firm enter into this equation?
  4. Do my newer associates believe in paying their dues for a given time period, or are they motivated by challenges and self-fulfillment right from the very beginning?
  5. How self-sufficient are my younger associates? Are they still living at home? How much are they committed to their jobs as their only means of support?

For younger generations, the job future has never been more precarious and uncertain. As a firm, one of your primary responsibilities is attracting and retaining lawyers, especially talented ones. Every leader must learn to make adjustments to get the most from—and give the most to—the vast population of younger associates.



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