The Generation Gap at Work

How BOOMER owners must deal with Gen ‘X’ employees.

In order to explain how the older, Boomer generation must relate to the successor, Generation X, we must first understand their genesis.

Economically, WWII era workers were security conscious. Some either remembered (or were constantly reminded) of the Great Depression by the prior generation Those who experienced the WWII economy either in uniform or at home had the “American Dream” in mind after the war – get a secure job that will permit raising a family in the safer suburbs in a house, rather than in the apartments in which many people of that generation grew up.

That worked for the WWII generation. Security was the key issue on their minds. But 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 or the 25 or 50 year plaques given by carriers to their long-term agents.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s 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 would be now if the market conditions had not changed forever just as they were assuming control of their businesses?

Regardless, 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 their next meal was never a problem. Gen X was born into the 1970’s and 1980’s with a different view of life and of business. Middle class Gen X (in which most insurance agents reside) 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 the best available in just about everything.

This article will not comment on the progressive or permissive attitudes that led Gen X into their unique personality. We simply use this background to explain why they are neither better nor worse than their predecessors, just very different with different motivations, needs and desires.

If the Boomer owners write off the attitude of Gen X employees to laziness or lack of motivation, they are making a BIG mistake. That mistake has led, and will continue to lead, agents into believing that they don’t have a successor generation for their businesses. The result has been a collapse of the agency industry as agencies fold into one another instead of remaining in existence as independently owned entities.

Most Gen Xers are inherently as intelligent as their predecessors. They have not been educated as well (for a variety of reasons too great to discuss in this article), but this does not affect their 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 Boomer parents worked (to provide the desired level of comfort for their families).

The numerous success stories reflected in business magazines, on television and over the Internet are all about Gen Xers. To many of the older generation, it seems as if these people literally “stumbled” on success without the years of work that was necessary for their parents’ generation to “pay their dues”.

Herein 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. Gen X builds careers out of PERSONAL INTERESTS. In ancient Rome some of the most decadent parts of the culture AND some of the most innovative parts of the culture grew out of the same leisure class. While Gen X can not yet 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, are not worried about making a living or the security of their families. They don’t know how it is going to happen, but they “assume” a comfortable life style. They know that the middle class employee base is shrinking and any skill or talent will probably guarantee security in their 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 will simply move on and take their talents with them.

Why should this concern us? This must concern the Boomer agency owners because their current and future enrichment depends on the motivation of the younger workforce. And unless you understand them, you will tend to rationalize, but not use their tendencies and behaviors 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 is employee who better know how to automate than the owners who are responsible for automation. Like any great leader, we should give this responsibility (and the required authority) to the Gen Xer in the agency who will likely use this as a spring-board for his/her interest-related advancement within the agency. They may not know policy terms as well as you, but they certainly know how to relate to other Gen Xers who are 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, not independent, of owners) about how to change the agency from a 20th century agency into a 21st century agency. Participative management was made for Gen X. It is a way to get and keep them involved and interested. They, too, will catch fire about a business that can support them and their families if it will also be interesting to them.