GENERATIONAL COMMUNICATION STYLES
Part 2: The Baby Boomer Generation
"The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn't the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility."
As a group, each American generation experiences the world in a way that's different from every other generation. Each generation grows up in a period of history that molds them and affects how they see the world. As a result, each generation views life differently and learns differently. Each has different styles in communicating and different expectations of how they want to be treated.
When we understand these generational perspectives and generational communication styles, we can converse more effectively with each other. Not everyone is going to fit these stereotypes, but they are typical patterns and if you are aware of them you can learn to bridge the divide. This week we focus on the Baby Boomers, those born in the 15 years after World War II.
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The Baby Boomers are the offspring of those soldiers coming back from World War II, all the folks who put their family plans on hold until things got back to normal. Until the Millennials came along, they were by far the largest generation ever to be born, so they tended by their sheer numbers to skew national demographics and trends. They've often been called the "Me Generation" or the "Woodstock Generation."
One of the major aspects of their early years was the advent of television. It's hard for those who are younger than the Boomer Generation to imagine a world without TV, but I remember the pre-TV era because our family was quite late in having one. I was about ten years old when we got our first TV, a hand-me-down from an uncle. It had only three channels, and it would only work for about 45 min before it would get too hot and turn itself off. There was often a struggle in our family to have it off, cooling down, before our favorite programs came on.
Television changed the way Baby Boomers experienced the world. It felt like they were all sharing the same events together. They all remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated and grieved collectively watching his funeral on television: the flag-draped casket on the caisson; John-John's salute; the eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery. Those sad days were followed within a few years by Martin Luther King's assassination and Robert Kennedy's assassination. Television brought all the memorable moments of our lives into our living rooms. I was one of millions of Americans who were glued to the TV set for the Beatles' first concert on the Ed Sullivan show. Screaming girls and "yeah, yeah, yeah."
Popular music set the tone for a new generation that questioned the rules their parents lived by. By the time of Woodstock and the Summer of Love, it was clear that Boomers were going to dance - not march, as their elders did - to the beat of a different drummer.
Because of the Cold War, young Boomers lived with a sense of constant peril. The space race was a big part of their lives - this intense competition between the Soviets and the United States. Every time America would do something, it seemed that the Russians would one-up us. But we eventually won the race to the moon and I clearly remember that Sunday evening when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. "That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind."
For many of the Boomer Generation, their most significant coming-of-age event was the Vietnam War. Unlike World War II, Vietnam was an ambiguous war that created a massive political and philosophical clash between the generations. Many of the generation that had lived through World War II believed the Vietnam War was necessary to halt the spread of communism, while much of the Baby Boomer generation seriously questioned the "righteousness" of the war and the way it was being waged. It seemed to them that the cost of the war was borne more heavily by our young men and not so much by the rest of the country.
Baby Boomers also came of age in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the women's liberation movement, and the peace movement. Then the whole Watergate mess compounded the tension and division in the country caused by Vietnam.
Notwithstanding the influence of the peace, love and hippie movements and the political upheaval swirling around them, Baby Boomers grew up in a time of great economic optimism. After WWII the economy grew rapidly, technology and medicine brought vastly improved lifestyles, and progress in science, including space travel, created an aura in which anything seemed possible. Boomers believed that if you worked hard, you could live the American Dream. Boomers tend to work harder - or at least longer - than Millennials or Generation X, putting in punishing hours and working overtime to make their organizations and the world a better place. It is said that Boomers live to work, they seek advancement and status, they want respect, and they expect others to pay their dues.
Among many Boomers, money tended to be a sign of one's status - a reflection that you have worked hard and you've come to it by rights. They were the first generation to use credit cards in a substantial way. The idea that you could buy now and pay later is a boomer phenomenon.
Once Boomers reached their prime parenting years, it was expected that most households would have two incomes. Stay at home moms were becoming a thing of the past, as many mothers went back to work once their children were in school. Boomer parents tended to have more income, but less time to spend with their children.
In an ironic twist, in their later years many Boomers still have children who have not yet left home and are also responsible for the care of their aging parents. Squeezed between two weighty sets of responsibilities, Boomer women understand personally the term "Sandwich Generation."
So how can we use this understanding to communicate more effectively with Baby Boomers?
Generational communication preferences tend to be based on the technology the individuals were exposed to in their lifetime. According to Alan Kay, "Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born." As technology advances, the more digital generations become and the more they embrace new communications methods. Boomers grew up speaking in person and on the telephone; many adopted e-mail mid-life, but most did not adopt more modern digital communication technology like Twitter and the like. As a result and speaking only in generalities, Baby Boomers tend to prefer face-to-face communication or phone conversations over e-mail, and e-mail over other technologies.
Unlike later generations. Baby Boomers tend to have sharper boundaries between work and the rest of their lives. They may stay at work longer, but when they're off, they're off and they don't maintain a perpetual electronic tether to their desks. Thus, if a coworker needs to communicate after business hours, Boomers prefer to receive an e-mail which they can retrieve on their own schedule, unless the matter is very urgent, in which case they prefer the telephone.
Boomers are the busy generation. They thought life had to be lived in a hurry and this affects their communication styles. Consequently, they don't have time for lengthy communication; they like you to answer their questions and get to the point.
They are also impatient with being told what to do. The best way to present an issue to them is to show them their options, ask them for their opinions, and then let them decide how best to move forward. Don't even think of giving them a direct order.
Boomers tend to work more on a communal or teamwork basis as opposed to a command and control model more typical of their World War II Generation parents. They are inclined to speak much more openly and directly than their parents. They seldom felt they had to pull any punches, and they still believe that.
Many in the Boomer Generation believe that they have the answers, so they like to hear things like, "You are absolutely right." They like being appreciated for putting in the time required to do a great job. They believe that they've figured out the world better than their parents and better than their children, and so they like to be respected as the ones who found a better way.
Next week: Generational Communication Styles - Part 3: The Generation X Generation