When you’re talking about a total of 151 million Americans, it’s tricky to make sweeping but accurate generalizations. And yet, that’s how many Americans fit into just two widely-recognized demographic groups: Baby Boomers, the 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964 and Millennials, the 76 million who came along between 1981 and 1997. Just as we can tell an LP record from an iPod, we’ve likely recognized common differences between Boomers and Millennials: How they typically work, communicate, balance job tasks and personal life, and what they expect for mentoring and promotions.
How can Boomers and Millennials work together without driving each other nuts? We recently turned to two New York architects to discuss their experience, proposed solutions, and general observations. This discussion resonates far beyond the design industry as it is applicable to the workforce of today and has implications for the workplace of tomorrow.
Our interviewees were Renaldo Pesson, associate partner at E4H Environments for Health Architecture, now in his third decade practicing interior architecture with a specialty in healthcare building design; and E4H architect Anne-Laure Cleeremans, who earned her master’s degree from La Cambre in Belgium in 2012 and has practiced for five years. They’ve collaborated on several projects and renovations, including the construction of 80,000 square feet of corporate offices and public spaces for a leading healthcare system in New York City. Through their comments, it was possible to determine five pointers on how Boomers and Millennials can get the most out of their work together in terms of the quality of their work, their career advancement, and even their personal enjoyment of the job:
1. Recognize that Boomer-Millennial conflict and compromise can spark creativity
Renaldo: One of the most exciting things about Millennials is their energy. You see Millennials who are saying, “Have we done this before?” and “What if?” and “Why can’t we do this?’’ They have the computer knowledge to quickly investigate options bordering on the near outrageous, and sometimes we [Boomers] have to say, “No, you can’t build that, and here is why.’’ But then you go back at it again, and between the Millennials and the Boomers, you find something in the middle but beyond the familiar, something more unusual and innovative.
Anne: Millennials tend to have an instinct towards temporary spaces and flexibility in design, with the recognition that things need to be removable and convertible to something else in the near future. Things change faster all the time, so when you design a space, it’s not for next 20 years like it used to be. We don’t know if the design may have to change in five years. We are always thinking, “What’s next?”
2. Knowing how to operate a pencil still matters
Renaldo: When it comes to creating an initial design, Millennials definitely can get moving faster, because their computer skills allow them to play graphically with imagery, design options, and 3D models; whereas the Boomer may be trammeled by realities and the thought process, thinking things through or sketching them out traditionally.
Anne: There’s definitely more of an immediacy with the computer generation. Millennials say, “Let’s do this now, as fast as we can, and later we’ll think about how it’s all pulled together and how everything works.”
Renaldo: But at the same time, I’ve seen how difficult that can be for the Boomers or senior managers to know if the Millennial architect is really talented or really skillful. There is a difference, and sometimes it matters. The computer drawings these days look so precise, but if you really zoom in, you may realize there are missing components. I’ve been in situations in client meetings where there wasn’t a computer (believe it or not) to draw or illustrate with. We were in a hot debate where a detail needed immediate resolution, and here saw our Millennial counterpart just look up blank with nowhere to turn. Boomer to the rescue, extracting the mighty pen and sketching it out to ask, “Do you mean this?” The funny thing is the audience looks up as if to wonder, “Can people still do that?”
3. Phones are for talking, too
Anne: Another big difference and challenge is communication. We are more comfortable with social media and casual emails. I think Boomers are more formal and direct. Sometimes the way Millennials communicate might be confusing for the Boomers.
Renaldo: We were recently going back and forth with e-mails to a Boomer client and getting nowhere. Fed up, I finally said to Anne, “no more emails, let’s pick up the phone and call the guy.’’ So, we called, and within 10 minutes, we had an agreement with all parties about the direction we would pursue. I did a quick hand sketch, Anne scanned it to PDF, and emailed it at lightning speed. Then we picked up the phone again. “Do you understand what the sketch shows?’’ In another two or three minutes the case was closed and off to formalize in Revit. I think Anne learned that sometimes, you still have to pick up the phone—and an “old-fashioned sketch” is more effective than several rounds of emails.
4. Agree to disagree about the meaning of “work-life balance”
Renaldo: For the Boomers, the biggest challenge with Millennials is, we are oftentimes convinced that they—quite frankly—don’t want to work as hard. They say, “We have a social life, we want to take vacations. We want to go to the rooftop bar or attend meet-ups on any night of the week.” The Boomers will say, “There’s work to be done, we have to finish this work. Where is your sense of urgency, your commitment?”
Anne: I don’t want to be completely under my work; I want balance between both of them. I’m committed to my work, but I still want to have a life besides my work because I know everything could end tomorrow.
Renaldo: Boomers might skip or postpone a vacation to get a job done. Millennials are like, “No way, I don’t want to do that. I have a vacation planned or time off and I’m outta here.”
Anne: And even if you [Boomers] are on vacation, you always check your emails! You can’t really go away. Millennials are like, “I’m out. I’m not checking my emails because I need this time to recover.”
5. Career Expectations Have Shifted
Renaldo: From the ‘80s to present day, people and the industry have changed dramatically. I think I waited ten years to be a senior designer. Key-word “waited.” I was knocking stuff down and winning awards, bringing recognition to the firms, yet the promotion didn’t come. It was timed-based, not performance. I recently worked with a young woman with two years of experience. She interviewed for a senior designer position, with not much to show, just the feeling that she’s ready and capable. It’s amazing. Worse than that, the parents support them! There was a youngster at an old office who didn’t receive a great evaluation because he wasn’t particularly good. His mother called in and yelled at HR about the lousy review. This is the age where everyone gets the same medal whether they finished first or dead last. So many believe they are due, sometimes way ahead of schedule, and sometimes there are others who are just ahead of schedule. So, my take is stereotyping or generalizing is never the ticket for success. The key is open-mindedness, a wiliness to get along, and an appreciation of your differences.
Anne: I’ve noticed how Renaldo works with Millennials: you don’t just criticize them and say you’ve done something wrong, you always explain the reasons. There’s a training aspect of, “This is wrong—but I’m going to tell you why it’s wrong, and how we can fix it.” It puts great energy into the team relationship. This is a time when mentoring is not top-down, but a mutual mentoring. The Boomers mentor the Millennials—but also Millennials can bring a lot to Boomers as well. It makes for more innovation and more creativity all around.
Peter J. Howe is a journalist with nearly 30 years’ experience in Boston. The former business editor of NECN, he hosted "CEO Corner," an interview show with regional business leaders. Howe was previously a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe and is currently Senior Advisor at Denterlein.