When Empathy Looks Like Apathy: Baby Boomers and Millennials at Work

Don’t be so quick to judge someone else’s ability to empathize, or you may just demonstrate a lack of empathy yourself.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the rift between Baby Boomers and Millennials in the workplace, a squabble between parents and their children. Boomers says their young colleagues are self-entitled and aloof. Millennials say their elders are micromanaging Luddites. What is old is outdated and what is new cannot be trusted. Neither are actually right.

So what’s the beef really about? Both generations think the other is incapable of empathy.

The rise of technology has transformed our society and social norms have changed drastically, both at home and at work. The laws that govern our behaviors have been rewritten. How we relate to one another, how we communicate, what activities we choose to engage in, how we pick our friends, how we manage our careers — it’s all different. New technology enables us to make new choices, and therefore new decisions are being made.

That doesn’t necessarily make the decisions of Millennials any better (though greater access to information may mean they’re more informed). It certainly doesn’t make those decisions any more meaningful to the person who’s making them. And I think that’s where the generational divide really stems from: one cannot see the world from the other’s perspective, no matter how hard they try.

The lack of empathy between Baby Boomers and Millennials isn’t the result of an inability to understand the attitudes and motivations of people born into a different generation. I think it’s caused by a deep-rooted conviction that a whole generation has a lesser capacity for empathy than your own.

Empathy cannot successfully occur when you’re busy accusing the other of apathy. You have to be willing to accept empathy before you can be in any position to give it.

Millennials “Lack” of Empathy

In a recent article in The Huffington Post titled Embracing the Culture of a Younger Generation, the author makes the case for why the accusation that Millennials have a lack of empathy made by older generations is just a lack of empathy on their part.

Friction and misunderstandings often occur when communicating across generations. It gets even more challenging when working across virtual settings. It isn’t surprising then that younger adults, the Millennials, are labeled by Boomers as unable to hold meaningful face-to-face conversations, not doing what it takes to achieve long term success or unable to show empathy for others.

Studies released in the last few years point out that the ability for Millennials to show empathy is declining. Sara Conrad, a researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, released findings describing college students as scoring 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts did twenty years ago. But the studies don’t tell the whole story, because they measure empathy by analyzing individuals’ heart rates, their face gestures or voices fluctuations. They don’t measure the online behavior that demonstrates Millennials do care, and they are well connected – and not just with one another, but with causes that benefit society at large as well as local communities.

What the studies don’t take into account is how differently Millennials communicate as compared to the way we communicated 20 years ago. This change is driven by the exponential increase in the dissemination of information and the methods in which it is processed. With the launch of the Internet twenty one years ago, communication tools around the world began to change drastically and permanently. The Internet proved to be a game changer for nations, organizations, and individuals alike. Once social media was introduced, it enabled a new way for people, particularly the younger generation, to connect with one another, based on common interests, goals and even values.

The Millennial Workplace

In a piece in Time Magazine earlier this year, Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Who Would You Rather Hire?, the author goes into depth on what Millennials expect out of their careers, how they want to conduct themselves, and most importantly why. It can be easy to see how these attitudes can be misconstrued by Boomers as carelessness, irreverence and laziness. I’ve strung together a few excerpts for you:

Among other things, millennials (those in their 20s and early 30s) want flexible work schedules, more “me time” on the job, and nearly nonstop feedback and career advice from managers. They’re also more likely than average to think the boss could learn a thing or two from their young employees. Oh, and they really want to be able to wear jeans at work.

Gen Y will also reshape the workplace—sooner than later, if they have their way. Among other characteristics that stand out, millennials, who have come of age with the text message and social media, are an impatient bunch: They’re hyper-connected, tech savvy, entrepreneurial, and collaborative. They also favor fast-paced work environments, want quick promotions, and aren’t fans of traditional office rules and hierarchies.

For the most part, millennials aren’t fans of having to wait six months or a year to get a formal review of their work. Boomers, on the other hand, are more likely to prefer a structured system where feedback is given at certain times of the year. Instead of seeking constant feedback, boomers prefer to take the “Give me my objectives and get out of my way” approach.

An overwhelming 93% of millennials say they want a job where they can be themselves at work, and that includes dressing in a way that makes them comfortable. Boomers, on the other hand, are more prone to believing in the importance of maintaining a standard professional look in the workplace. It seems as if millennials also prefer casual attire because they don’t separate their personal and professional lives in the same way that baby boomers do.

Whereas more boomers feel the office environment and the traditional workday is the best way to get the job done, millennials prefer a flexible approach, including the right to be remote workers who go into the office only sometimes, or perhaps never. They maintain that as long as the work gets done, the amount of time spent in the office shouldn’t matter.

Millennials want to feel like they are part of a community at work—nearly 9 in 10 want a workplace to be social and fun—and have a genuine desire to listen into organizational strategy sessions. Instead of being a small cog unaware of any larger mission, millennials like being in the loop regarding their company’s vision, and how it is going to innovate to stay ahead of the curve.

An “ideocracy” should reign in the workplace, most millennials believe, in which everyone should be heard from and the best ideas win out, regardless of who has been on the job longer, or who has a corner office.

Disinterested in authority. Impatient. Leisurely. Not even willing to come into an office? Of course this all can be seen as unacceptable on the surface of things. It seems selfish and disrespectful. But the Millennial attitude on what work looks and feels like isn’t due to a disinterest in work; it’s quite the opposite. Millennials want work to look and feel more like life, because work is much more integrated into their lives. They’re so deeply focused on the meaning and the purpose of what they’re doing, they don’t want all the niceties and etiquette to be a barrier to getting the real work done.

The Millennial Roots

Ironically enough, Millennials are the way they are — with big, lofty goals for changing the world and self-confidence in their ability to be a part of that change — because that’s who their parents taught them to be. Their parents, the Baby Boomers.

When people are caught up in accusing one another of wrongdoing, criticizing others’ behaviors and attitudes rather than taking the time to understand them, they miss the opportunity to recognize just how similar they truly are. More often than not, these misconceptions are covering up a simple fact: they actually agree.

In the Forbes article, Millennials And Baby Boomers: At Odds Or Peas In A Pod?, the author makes the point that Baby Boomers and Millennials are pointing the finger at the other for slowing down progress or making risky decisions, when their hearts are very much in the same place.

“One of the biggest stereotypes about Millennials is that they only want to communicate through technology,” says Lindsey Pollak, the author of Getting From College To Career: the Revised Edition who’s made her own career as a Gen-Y expert from the neutral perch of a Gen-Xer. “It’s said all of the time: they don’t want to communicate face to face.” In contrast, Baby Boomers are often described as technophobes, hesitant to adapt to the rapidly advancements in technology both at work and at home. “They’re largely reluctant to communicate via IM and text message, particularly at work where they prefer to sit down and discuss issues in person,” says Pollak.

But technology and “coolness” aside, the number one source of generational stereotypes about Boomers and Millennials is the discussion of work ethic. Millennials, we’ve heard, are coddled, entitled and expectant of a trophy for showing up at work every day. Conversely, Boomers are micro-managers who don’t respect the talents of young employees. Unfortunately for both cohorts, there is undeniable truth to these particular generalizations. More unfortunately for the Boomers, they’ve got only themselves to blame. Helicopter parents, it seems, have become helicopter managers at work. “Boomers can say what they want. They call Millennials coddled,” says Pollak, “but deep down they know that—as their parents—they made them that way.”

So before you judge another, judge yourself. Is your colleague apathetic to the needs of the business, incapable of understanding others, obsolete or inexperienced, and has a lot to learn…or is it you?

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  1. Joanna Bloor says

    I couldn’t agree more. But the big question is what do you do about it and why does what I say (a cusp boomer myself) sound un-empathetic to my audience? And I use the word “sound” specifically. Because I’m sure if you ask both parties would say that they’re listening to the other, but what they’re not doing is hearing. I’m a BIG fan of the Millennial / Connected generation. Love how they’re thinking. So when I say something that gives me the “eye-roll” I always follow with “what are you hearing?”.

  2. twitter_brianvan says

    It may not be simply generational. I think a lot of it has to do with empathy issues among hierarchical levels of organizations. Management can possess and wield power freely over their subordinates, and a non-empathetic manager can be a dreadful presence in the lives of their staff. Similarly, non-empathetic staff can ruin a manager’s ability to meet business goals, possibly putting everyone’s jobs on the line as well. Because this is tricky territory to navigate, many people in organizations become stand-offish. They divorce themselves from their relationships with their co-workers and the company itself, opting to go the “look-out-for-number-one” route. It’s not a common ability for people to know how to address this in others, and if it’s not present in the upper management of a company, the whole organization can rot from the inside out.

    Why are Baby Boomers more prone to relationship apathy? Simply because, due to having years of experience working, they’re more likely to have been at a juncture where they’ve been surrounded by it. One hope for the American workplace is that there will soon be fewer organizations thoroughly poisoned by apathy culture, and the empathetic ones will have a chance to lead the way.

  3. Romello says

    Let’s get down to the real nitty gritty here. Hierarchy in itself is oppressive. No matter how you slice it, someone or something is going to be, or feel stifled in one way or another. The boomers were born and bred with the 1+1=2 logic, that black, white, up, and down, archaic way of thinking. The millenials, have been given the tree of knowlege to freely feast upon, forgetting that it must be tempered with the wisdom of the elders. In turn, you have young, arrogant, “know it alls,” who don’t know shit for lack of better words. Their willing disconnection from the knowlege of old, will cause them to repeat the mistakes of the past, but at a more rapid pace. Unless both sides recognize that this division is not only foolish, but by design, we are all vulnerable. With egos inexorably being erected, they will soon be too large and too powerful. The elders know the consequence of inebriating oneself with the waters of Knowlege and information. The younger generations will become inundated, and if they follow suit with almost all of their half assed attempts at everything, they will metaphorically throw their hands in he air and say fuck it, then we all pay the price. The issue is no longer about young versus old, or white versus black, or republican versus democrat. Without eachother, working together with the planet to ensure a future that can survive US ALL, there will be no life left, let alone pointless arguments that force everyone into these verbal tail hasing sessions. Moral of the story, we either rise together respectfully or we “fall” apart painfully.

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