Generations at Work: The Baby Boomer Paradox

A Baby Boomer at work stares out of the window in thought

Millennials command a great deal of attention in Corporate America, as they should. This generation of people, born between 1981 and 1996, represents the bulk of the workforce. More than one in three (35%) participants in the labor force are Millennials, and they are profoundly reshaping when, how, where, and why work gets done. But make no mistake, Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, still rule the roost, even though they comprise only 25% of the workforce.

For one thing, Boomers control 53% of the country’s wealth, compared with 4.6% for Millennials. Boomers also own 55% of the stock market, while Millennials hold 2% of the total equity of corporations. And as anyone working in a company today can attest, most of the seats in the C-suite and the board of directors are occupied by, that’s right, Boomers. With people living longer and Boomers already working beyond traditional retirement years, not much will change for the next decade or more.

A Generation Raised in Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Movement is considered a defining experience of many Boomers. The oldest Boomers were 17 years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Five years later, they were privy to the great Civil Rights leader’s assassination. Equal rights for both people of color and women were a common thread woven into Boomer lives.

Unfortunately, 58 years after the march, the marchers’ chief concern — jobs — continues to be problematic. Unemployment rates for Blacks during this period of low unemployment is nearly double that of whites, even when factoring in levels of education. In corporate leadership positions, Black people remain significantly underrepresented. Approximately 12.4% of the U.S. population is Black, yet only 3.3% of senior leadership roles and less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEO roles are assumed by Black people.

The Ideological Shift Amongst Baby Boomers

How can a wealthy and powerful generation that considers Dr. King a hero fall so short in creating the equal employment opportunities he fought for — they fought for? The short answer is they have calcified with age into inward-focused people caring less about others — not all Boomers, but many of them, especially when compared with Millennials. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of Boomers believe that increasing racial and ethnic diversity in America is good for society, whereas 61% of Millennials believe in its promise.

This difference in perspective was evident in 2016, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination. The reaction of Millennials and Boomers diverged, with 61% of Boomers disapproving and 62% of Millennials approving. Stark differences between Boomers and Millennials are evident in other areas related to diversity. More than double the percentage of Boomers (32%) than Millennials (15%) believe that same-sex marriage is bad for society. That imbalance is consistent regarding interracial marriage (10% versus 4%).

Surely, generational characteristics don’t define individuals. There are many exceptions to what we believe we know about groups. Boomer business leaders, such as the founders of Ben & Jerry’s, are corporate trailblazers in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and have been for years. Countless Boomers still believe in fairness and equal opportunity at a macro level. But they aren’t giving up their senior management positions and board seats to support the advancement of Black people.

The X-Factor

In this comparison of generations, people seem to have forgotten Generation X, the smallest generation of the three. We get no love, which is unfortunate, since the country’s future depends on what we do when we’re passed the baton. This day is coming soon. The average age of people in the C-suite today is 56, which is about the age of the oldest Gen Xer. We need to be the X factor in shifting our country to a more open and inclusive one. The good news is we’re trained to do it. We’re accustomed to playing the middle role, raising kids and care-giving parents. It is up to us to bridge the generation gap, assuming power from a generation too slow to release it and raising the bar for a generation moving too fast to get it. 

Interested in learning more about Generation X? Stay tuned for my next post, The X-Factor.