The Generation Gap At Work: How Boomer Owners Must Deal With Gen X Employees


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To explain how the older 'boomer' generation must relate to its successor, 'Generation X,' we must first understand their origins.

Economically, World War II-era workers were security conscious. They either remembered or were constantly reminded of the Great Depression by the previous generation. Those who experienced the WWII economy either in uniform or at home dreamed the 'American Dream' after the war: get a secure job and raise a family in a house in the safer suburbs, rather than in apartments, where many people of that generation grew up.

Security was the key issue on their minds. But for the most part, their children, the Baby Boomers, grew up secure, in two-parent homes in which one parent worked and the other was home. Their level of education was generally better than that of the generation before them because their parents, looking toward the 'security' of the children, promised themselves that the next generation would not have to struggle as they had. The boomers were not as affected by war as were their parents, nor were they as alarmed by the Cold War as the prior generation.

Boomers' business goals were based on advancement and risk-taking. In the insurance business, the WWII generation were the 40-year agency and company employees and the 'debit men' in the field. If you don't know what a 'debit man' was, ask someone over 50. They built secure careers and were exceedingly proud of the gold watch and the 50-year plaque that carriers gave them in recognition of their long-term service.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the boomers were assuming control of insurance agencies with their sights on acquisitions, growth, mergers, and making much more money. Security was already theirs. Now they wanted to build comfortable lives for their families. Who knows where they'd be now if, just as they were assuming control of their businesses, market conditions hadn't changed forever?

While those boomers were working their way into agencies (family or otherwise), they were also raising a new generation: Gen X. For middle-class boomer families, security and the next meal were never a problem. Gen X was born into the 1970s and 1980s, with a different view of life and business. Middle-class Gen X (a group that contains most insurance agents) had food on the table, a television in every room, video games, and sports and recreation provided from the time they learned to walk. Parents provided them the best in just about everything. Gen X is neither better nor worse than other generations-just very different, with different motivations, needs, and desires.

If boomer owners dismiss the attitude of Gen X employees as laziness or lack of motivation, they're making a big mistake. They'll be led into the trap of thinking that they don't have a successor generation for their businesses. The result will be a collapse of the agency industry, as agencies fold into one another instead of remaining independently owned.

Most Gen Xers are as intelligent as their predecessors. They haven't been educated as well for a variety of reasons, but this doesn't affect their inherent intelligence. They were raised in general comfort, without many of the severe handicaps that affected prior generations. The only major negative impact on their lives has been single-parent homes and homes in which both parents worked.

Many of the numerous success stories told in business magazines, on television, and over the Internet are about Gen Xers. To many of the older generation, it seems as if these people stumbled on success, without the years of work their parents' generation spent paying its dues. Here lies the major difference between Gen X and the Boomers!

The WWII generation built careers to be secure. The Boomers built careers to get ahead. Generation X builds careers out of personal interests. In ancient Rome, some of the most decadent parts and some of the most innovative parts of the culture grew out of the same leisure class. Although Gen Xers can't claim to be a leisure class, since they must have jobs to make a living, many of the middle class Gen X, including those in the insurance industry, aren't worried about making a living or their family's security. They don't know how it's going to happen, but they assume they'll always live in a comfortable life style. They know that the middle-class employee base is shrinking and that any skill or talent they have will probably guarantee their security in the future.

Gen X wants to build a career out of something that genuinely interests them. Those of us who have been in business for more than 30 years have seen innumerable insurance professionals who hate the subject and are trapped in their roles. Gen X will not permit themselves to fall into that trap. If we can't interest Gen X in our business, they'll simply move on, and take their talents with them.

This must concern boomer agency owners because their current and future enrichment depends on the younger workforce's motivation. And unless you understand these younger workers, you'll tend to rationalize their tendencies and behavior-but not use them in your (and their) best interest.

For instance, we know that Gen X is much more computer literate than the boomers. However, the boomers are the agency owners and control the purse strings. The most likely result: employees who know how to automate better than the owners who are responsible for automation. A good leader should give the responsibility for automation (and the required authority) to the agency's Gen Xer, who will probably use the power as a spring-board for his or her interest-related advancement within the agency. The younger generation might not know policy terms as well as you do, but they certainly know how to relate to other Gen Xers: their contemporaries, clients, and future business owners!

The best way to manage Gen Xers in your agency is to invite them into decision-making roles (with owners, not independent of them). They can be a prime catalyst for turning your business into a 21st-century agency. Participative management was made for Gen X. It's a way to get and keep them involved and interested. If they can support themselves and their families by doing something that's interesting to them, their enthusiasm about working will catch fire.

This article is taken from the ACG PIPELINE newsletter and is reproduced with permission. E. Al Diamond is president of Agency Consulting Group, Inc., 507 North Kings Highway, Cherry Hill, NJ 08034, (856) 779-2430 fax (856) 667-6224, E-mail[email protected].
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