Cross-generational understanding

We can safely assume that every person reading this TIP is either a member of, or works closely with, the generations known as Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964) or Millennials (b. 1982-1999). If you’re a mid-life Generation X person, you’re not being disregarded here, and in fact, you’re more likely in a ringside seat with colleagues from these two “extremes” surrounding you.

How could we achieve more together if we understood each other better and communicated more appropriately? Are you aware, acknowledging, and accounting for generational differences within your nonprofit in how people work, think, and act?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and most if not all of these observations are debatable. There is also a dangerous risk, in stereotyping generations, of overlooking the still very prevalent boundaries that exist within each age group based on income, experience, geographical origin and certainly ethnicity. (For example, critics of the popular conceptions about Millennials as being “entitled” and “narcissistic” remind us that such concepts are based on the regrettable assumption that Millennials are singularly white, middle to higher income, suburban in origin, and college-educated.)

All that said, however, we should not fear examining generational differences as they affect our ability to work together toward common goals. We offer the following with the hope that these observations could be a launching point for discussion among your senior leaders, youngest staff, funders, volunteers, and donors.

1.  Boomers: More likely to have followed the conventional rites of passage: college, marriage, owning a home, having a family. Millennials: More likely to delay these conventional milestones or achieve them in different order.

2.  Boomers: Came of age in relatively stable economic times, yet tend to manage money ineffectively. Millennials: Came of age in uncertain economic times, yet more determined to manage what money they have by avoiding the mistakes their parents made.

3.  Boomers: Must consciously work to stay on top of technological innovations and may feel threatened by this pressure. Millennials: At ease naturally with digital communications and accept, even expect, unlimited evolution.

4.  Boomers: Likely dealing with the care of older parents, which brings logistical, emotional and economic challenges after years of mutual independence. Millennials: More likely living with parents longer (or dependent upon them) after years of “helicopter” parents who hovered and rescued.

5.  Boomers: Define “career” in a more formal, linear sense, and staying at one job for longer periods of time. Millennials: Less focus on formal career path and more on enrichment and engagement, moving diagonally on a lattice instead of a ladder, and more likely to change jobs in a process of discovery.

6.  Boomers: More comfortable in a more conventional organizational hierarchy with defined and “earned” chains of command. Millennials: Expect more immediate responsibility, feedback, and involvement in critical decision-making.

7.  Boomers: Expect life to be “logical” (cause and effect, i.e., confounded that people who never smoked cigarettes suffer lung cancer). Millennials: more accepting of uncertainty and the unknown (some attribute this worldview as being “post 9-11”).

8.  Boomers: As Americans, tend more toward traditional patriotism and “nationalism;” international travel a luxury. Millennials: Tend more toward “cosmopolitanism” and see themselves as members of a global community; international experiences a given.

9.  Boomers: More likely to be informed about the prevailing political process and describe themselves as national “political junkies.” Millennials: Less convinced that the process is worthy and more likely to care about/roll up sleeves for a local cause.

10.  Boomers: More conscious of myriad ethical challenges in life and work (not more ethical per se, just more aware of the choices and pitfalls). Millennials: More inclined to delay identifying with “adulthood” (whatever that is) and confronting its inherent compromises.

 Not satisfied with this overview? Please share your own!




  1. Kate Zulaski
    May 02, 2013

    Boomers: More concerned with “process” and doing things in a certain order. Millenials: More concerned with “outcomes”, how one gets to the goal is not as important as the achievement.

  2. susan
    May 03, 2013

    Good one! We knew this list would spark some comment.

    I continue to be struck by how much more we could all accomplish together if we gave more credence to our different preferences and perspectives. Yours is a fine example.

    Susan Liehe – RMA

  3. Bill Stout
    May 03, 2013

    Re. “the regrettable assumption that Millennials are singularly white, middle to higher income, suburban in origin, and college-educated.”

    Assuming “international experience is a given” feeds into this idea of income and college. It’s certainly not a given for many low and lower-middle young people. In my experience as a boomer with teen and college kids, and young co-workers, the two common “marks” of an affluent child are perfect teeth through orthodontia, and international experience on the resume.

    I believe those who are coming of age in this recession may be a bit like our depression-era ancestors. They are frugal of necessity, and don’t take material goods or economic security as a birthright the way many of us boomers have.

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