How to talk to Millennials: A guide for Baby Boomers

Boomers and Millennials don't speak the same language, and that can be a barrier to collaboration

September 25, 2013|Susan Reimer

Beverly Jones was my life coach before she was anybody else's life coach.

Back at Ohio University, she was a young administrator and I was a reporter on the student newspaper, The Post. We were the rare woman in our jobs, and she talked me in off the ledge many times.

Bev went on to Georgetown Law School and eventually worked as a lobbyist on Capital Hill. A golden parachute allowed her to re-invent herself as an executive coach, helping professionals figure out where they, like her, will be next. She is particularly interested in how Boomers recycle themselves for post-career careers.

She writes a regular on-line newsletter for her company, Clearways Consulting, and, of course, I am a subscriber. I recommend her advice to all my colleagues, especially my young colleagues, because she is as wise today as she was all those years ago when she was making tea to calm the nerves of a high-strung young feminist.

A recent edition of her newsletter made me laugh out loud — and blush with self-consciousness. She was talking about me.

Increasingly, workplace teams cut across the generations and businesses are finding real power in the blend of sage experience and youthful innovation. But she said, "Boomers and Millennials find each other boring."

We have little in common, and we don't speak the same language. Literally.

"Recently, I was talking with a group of Boomer friends about the tedious conversational patterns of our age cohort," she wrote. "In particular, we all confessed to indulging in prolonged accounts of our various aches and pains.

"We bore even each other with this kind of talk and we could drive a Millennial out of the room."

She came up with a list of "annoying old person talk" and suggested that we Boomers signal each other when we drift too close to those topics.

Among the temptations is to mention how much more expensive everything is now compared to back in the day. Or to interrupt a conversation about something current with some other kind of reminiscence. Those memories only have meaning for us, and they throw up roadblocks for everybody else.

And finally, Bev wrote, do not spoil an experience like eating a piece of cake with complaints about how it is going to go straight to your hips. Either don't eat the cake or keep your mouth shut so others can enjoy theirs.

I asked Bev if there were other conversational turn-offs that Boomers commit, and she said her newsletter provoked lots of responses.

"Please tell your friends not to..." was the way the comments from younger readers began. Don't use old-fashioned slang, for one. Apparently "rad" isn't so rad anymore. My daughter keeps a running list of expressions nobody uses but me, and she punctuates each of my anachronisms with a snort of laughter.

"Another one is to stop expressing surprise at seasonal change," said Bev. This is something she is particularly guilty of doing, she said.

"I can't believe it is fall already."

"I can't believe it is getting dark out so early."

"I can't believe Christmas is here again."

"That's a Boomer thing," said Bev.

I was starting to feel a little wounded and a lot defensive. Why do I have to change my way of speaking to accommodate these youngsters? Where is the deference due my eminence grise?

"You don't have to change," she said. "You can hang out with people your own age. But if you are trying to start something different — start a new career or a new enterprise — you are going to have be smart and remove some of the barriers to collaboration."

If we want to work well with people who are not like us but who bring their own gifts and skills to the workplace, we are going to have to get out of our own way, Bev said.

"That is if we want to keep having new and fresh opportunities. And I, for one, want to have those."

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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