In 2018, I had the great fortune of seeing jazz musician, Kamasi Washington, play in a live outdoor concert attended by thousands of people. He had just released “Harmony of Difference” the year before and in one of the interludes, took the opportunity to speak about the album and the importance of difference, saying something along the lines of “difference is meant to be celebrated, not only tolerated.” What he said has stuck with me ever since – it was so succinct and so wonderfully accurate. It resonated with me on a personal level.
I’m the fourth of five children and the first American-born member of our nuclear family of seven, born in Queens, New York City, the most ethnically diverse place on the planet. My younger sibling and I are Gen Y/Millennials, our older siblings who were born in Israel are Gen X, and our parents are Baby Boomers who were born in Eastern Europe just after World WWII. Attending a diverse public school and growing up as a third-culture kid in a family spanning continents and generations was not without its challenges, but provided me early on with the first-hand experience of close contact with people who have different perspectives on virtually everything. This proved to be a huge asset when I began working as a lawyer in my mid-20s.
Because I was born in 1985, I’m one of the older Millennials. As a corporate lawyer for most of the 2010s, I recall that conversations at the workplace and in the media about Millennials increased with time, as more and more younger Millennials began to enter the workplace. The defining characteristics of our generation became more pronounced and noticeable with each passing year.
The conversations at work reflected the discussions in the media, which seemed to be overly critical of our generation. I often heard Gen Xers complain about the younger millennials whom they perceived as lazy, self-centered, too laid-back, and not respectful enough of the office hierarchy or formalities like the dress code. I resented this. I felt like it was not a fair characterization, and what’s more, that it was an uncomfortable and ultimately inefficient source of friction, directly tied to decreasing employee satisfaction and retention. I felt that there was another narrative worth exploring and invited my colleagues to consider things differently.
In my previous posts in this Lives of Lawyers series, I’ve advocated for more empathy—vis-a-vis our clients and each other—viewing it as one of our most valuable assets as lawyers and an effective means of reducing friction, improving relationships, wellbeing and productivity. Miscommunication, resentment, and lack of mutual respect come together to make for a missed opportunity to gain strength from diverse perspectives. It’s also undoubtedly a significant contributor to poor work relationships marked by mistrust, diminished employee wellbeing, and fosters inefficient work practices. Trust is critical in the practice of law—a partner has to trust an associate before letting them handle negotiations, to cross-examine a witness on the stand, or even to communicate directly with a client.
Millennials comprise about 35% of the workplace. And as Boomers continue to push back retirement, today’s professional world has the most extensive range of generations to date. Several generations work together under the same roof, especially at law firms, where experience and age are viewed as a boon, not a burden. Understanding each other is more important than ever. We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand and avoid dealing with the elephant in the room—especially today, in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis.
Building healthier intergenerational working relationships comes down to understanding that it’s a matter of different work habits, communication styles, and expectations—not better or worse or non-existent, but different. To me, empathy in the workplace means understanding first and foremost that everyone—our peers, colleagues, bosses, juniors, opposing counsel, and clients—are human beings, with concerns and needs, anxieties, insecurities, motivations, and drives, both inside and outside the office. Empathy in practice means really listening and paying attention to one another, trying to bridge gaps instead of widening them. In the wider real world context, it means not deriding Millennials for being “Millennials” who are “lazy and don’t want to work,” but rather taking the opportunity to consider that perhaps there’s another narrative at work here—that Millennials are questioning what value is, how it is created, and whether hours in/hours at is a relevant metric of productivity.
In the hopes of fostering better, healthier intergenerational relationships at the office, and stronger, more effective work practices, what follows is a brief overview of Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y, their likes and dislikes, and tips for relating to them and each other. I’ve emphasized similarities to drive home the fact that we’re not so different after all! For purposes of this post, note that I excluded Gen Z (those born after 2000) because it’ll be a few years before they start graduating from law school and entering firms as associates and interns.
Often described as being self-centered…as not following through, being unprepared, spoiled, unable to handle criticism, entitled, and the unfortunate by-products of helicopter parenting. But studies have also shown them to be “eager, ambitious, and genuinely talented,” team players, driven by fairness and real productivity. Millennials are the first digital natives – having grown up with the Internet, computing and smartphones, and social media. Mark Zuckerberg is a Millennial!
Even for those older Millennials among us who largely enjoyed the 1990s and early 2000s, all Millennials have been impacted by entering the workforce at a time of recessions—the economic recession of 2008 and the current coronavirus-induced recession. This generation is marked by high rates of unemployment, job insecurity and staggering student debt, unlike Gen Xers, for whom secondary education proved to be financially worthwhile.
Tips for working with millennials:
Tips for Millennials:
Although today’s mid-life Gen Xers are viewed as well-adjusted humans with entrepreneurial tendencies, in the 1990s they were labeled as disaffected, cynical slackers. Once referred to as the “Latchkey” generation, Gen Xers were shaped by hands-off parenting (think Stranger Things), high rates of divorce, and single parenting, as well as shifting social values. Unlike Millennials, who are mired in student debt, Gen Xers are considered to be the last generation for whom “post-secondary education was broadly financially remunerative.”
Tips for working with Gen X:
Tips for Gen Xers:
Boomers were born in the aftermath of WWII. They were the first to grow up with TVs. They came of age when conservative values began to unravel, amid a deepening socio-cultural divide (e.g., Vietnam War, Woodstock, the feminist/sexual revolution, Watergate), which some experts say exists still today. In the U.S., most came of age in a time of increasing prosperity and government subsidies for post-war housing and education, which instilled in them a profound optimism, leading them to believe and expect the world to improve over time.
Tips for working with Boomers:
Tips for Boomers: