By Nadira A. Hira
September 28, 2007

Here’s a question I’ve heard a lot more than I might’ve expected in my reporting on Gen Y. Let us know what you think, and thanks for all the well wishes. Have a great weekend!

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My boss is in her 30s, and I thought, since we’re close in age, that we’d get along well. Instead, she’s harder on me than my older bosses have been. What’s up with that?

When Boomer bosses complain about their Gen Y charges, says researcher Tamara Erickson, she just asks if they have any kids. “I see the difference immediately,” says the co-author of 2006’s Workforce Crisis. “But I haven’t found anything that effective for Gen Xers. When I try, I often run into a fairly grumpy reaction: ‘Well, I had to do it, and they ought to do it.’ They’re much more rigid about what they went through and not being sympathetic to Yers.”

It seems counterintuitive. These Xers are our big brothers and sisters, they taught us all our best bad behavior, we idolized them. While that appears to be true in retrospect, speaking as a big sister myself, I never miss an opportunity to remind my sibs how much they got away with because I’d paved the way. “When I was little…” has started many a bitter conversation. And we’re only talking about curfews and phone privileges.

So imagine how Xers in the workplace, where the stakes are so much higher, must feel. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 48 million Xers to the almost 80 million of us and over 78 million Boomers. “People are paying attention to Yers to a degree that they didn’t necessarily pay to Xers, who are basically sandwiched between these huge globs of people in a very frustrating situation,” says Erickson. “They have annoying people like Tammy Erickson saying we have to retire retirement, so they’re not going to get rid of Boomers when they thought they would. And they’re already thinking that by the time Boomers actually leave, Yers will be perfectly positioned for those jobs. They’re very threatened by Yers.”

Which may help explain their sometimes less than loving attitude toward us in the office. But they needn’t depend on your empathy alone. For the Xers struggling to manage Yers — and their own emotions — more effectively, Erickson has a few thoughts. (That, incidentally, might be quite useful if e-mailed anonymously.)

Realize, she says, that Yers are very good at seeking out expertise, and they’re much more attuned to that than hierarchy, so Xers shouldn’t get offended if the Yers in their charge choose Boomers for mentors. “There’s great evidence of relationships forming between Boomers and Yers,” Erickson says. “Yers are sussing out who really knows how to do the job, and often it’s these old Boomers. But Xers can’t get caught up in that. They have to have the confidence to encourage Yers to team up with Boomers and make that an accepted part of the culture.”

And speaking of confidence, Xers also need to build some when it comes to technology. They’re very concerned about Yers’ greater technological sophistication, says Erickson, who points out that while Xers are perceived as very tech-savvy, some don’t feel as comfortable with technology as the perception indicates. Erickson recommends addressing that insecurity directly: “The Xers do really have to make sure that they’re experiencing the technology. A lot of what Yers know is not about them using the technology better, but about using it differently. Xers need to use the technology enough to develop some of that experiential knowledge.”

As an “older” Yer, even I didn’t quite understand what Facebook meant to my recent-grad sister and her friends until I finally started using it semi-regularly. Understanding how Yers use sites like this — that they aren’t just for e-mail or networking, but practically for conducting life — could go a long way to ease Xers’ technology anxiety. And insofar as that helps Xers to be more open and flexible in the way that they think about work, Erickson’s a fan: “It’d be great for Xer bosses to sit down with Yers and say, ‘Let’s think about all the time we spend scheduling meetings or doing conference calls. How much of that could we do with text messages or an internal Facebook site?’ Thinking like that will help Xers stay a step ahead.”

But whether your Xer boss is forward-thinking or as backward as Kris Kross, chances are that s/he’ll have a loopy episode sooner or later, so when it happens, don’t despair. Just remember where it’s coming from and try a little tenderness.

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