Debra Arbit describes herself and her small staff at BridgeWorks as generational junkies. “We eat, sleep, live, breathe the generational topic 24 hours a day,” said Arbit, the CEO and owner of the Wayzata-based workplace consultant. “We are huge generational nerds.” Using a blend of research, coaching and customized action plans, BridgeWorks helps businesses solve intergenerational culture clashes in their workplaces, attract and retain the best employees and understand their customers better. Its services include lunchtime “keynote” speeches, half-day workshops, intensive millennial boot camps and ongoing consulting relationships that can last a year or more. Founded in 1998, the company’s client list includes Cargill, Cisco, Deloitte, Ecolab, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Red Wing Shoes, Ralph Lauren, the University of Minnesota and Wells Fargo. BridgeWorks itself is a multigenerational company, though its staff leans more toward millennials (born 1981 to 1997) and Generation X (1965-1980) than aging baby boomers (1946-1964).
Q: What are BridgeWorks’ clients looking for?
A: About 65 to 70 percent of our business focuses on internal, human resource-related issues like, “We cannot figure out how to attract, retain, motivate millennials.” Or something even more broad: Help us get along. We’ve got baby boomers who are thinking about retirement, Gen Xers who are super frustrated and millennials who want to be promoted yesterday and they’ve been here for a week. About 35 percent centers on outward-facing market issues: How do I sell yogurt to millennial moms, or how do I attract a retired baby boomer to live in my housing complex? Helping clients understand how different generations buy and value things.
Q: Are there common themes that aren’t industry-specific?
A: Generation by generation, here’s what we’re seeing now. For baby boomers: They’re retiring later than they expected, either because they have to or they want to. The recession set many baby boomers back significantly. On top of that they still have millennial kids who are relying on them financially, and a lot of them still having aging parents. The second and more remarkable part of the story is that they are still the generation that wants to have an impact at work. As a generation, they are hard workers, incredibly competitive, and they want to stick around. What we’re finding is that these baby boomers often feel put out to pasture and a little bit pressured to get out of the way. We think that’s a huge missed opportunity because they have so much knowledge, so much experience and they’re walking out the door with all of it. It’s a huge opportunity for companies to continue to keep them engaged, with what now is becoming an underutilized piece of the workplace. On the negative side, they are getting pretty burned out. For Gen Xers: They are feeling incredibly frustrated and stuck behind the “gray ceiling.” Because baby boomers aren’t retiring as we thought they would, Gen Xers aren’t moving up the ranks as quickly. Add to that, there’s this incredibly eager-beaver millennial generation nipping at their heels who think they’re ready to be the CEO tomorrow. Gen X is feeling the squeeze not only at work but also at home. Many have both a financially dependent parent and financially dependent child. At work they’re trying to break into not just middle management but upper management. They’re turning 50, and people still think of them as skateboarding slackers who listen to Nirvana. The good news is Xers grew up in a time that forced them to toughen up: Enron, WorldCom, the divorce rate tripled, the dot-com burst. They are incredibly resilient. In the world we live in now, they’re well-suited to be great leaders. They’re entrepreneurial, independent. It’s really easy for baby boomers and millennials — who are by nature much more optimistic generations — to be frustrated by these “naysayers,” and we don’t think they are that. They aren’t negative just to be negative. They’re realistic, and they want what’s best for the company just like everybody else. But they’re not going to get out their pompoms and cheer if they don’t believe there’s anything to cheer for.
Millennials are suffering a little bit from a similar plague to the Xers, in that people still think they are kids. The oldest of them is 35 or 36. And they want to be treated with a little more respect. Millennials are starting to enter entry-level management positions, and they’re definitely shaking things up. They’re starting to get over all of the negative stereotypes that have been thrown at them — they’re entitled, they cry all of the time, they want promotions. People are starting to see them as a huge asset to the company. And it’s all because of technology. It used to be in business that the most experienced generation knows the most important thing at work. With technology, the younger generation knows more than the experienced generation.
Q: What are typical points of conflict?
A: There are several common clash points, which we define as areas where generations collide but everyone has a valid point of view. Organizational structure: Boomers respect hierarchy, while millennials view the world as a social network where everyone is on equal footing. Formality: If you come in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, can I trust you? Work ethic: face time vs. working at home. Collaboration: Every generation wants to collaborate, but how it looks is incredibly different. Feedback: How often do you want it, and do you want it formally or informally? Rewards: A company might say, “Come to this amazing event.” A boomer would say, “I just want the night off.”
Q: What is most striking about the work you do?
A: The generations is like a sneaky way to talk about change. Change is happening all the time. These generations are not standing still. Millennials are now parents. Gen Xers are parents of teenagers. What does that mean in the workplace? This is a way to look at it that feels more digestible. It’s also a lens on diversity in the workplace that has somehow remained untouched by the political correctness movement. If I ask you tell me about your impressions of the millennial generation, you might tell me — a little bit entitled, tech savvy, creative, little bit lazy, some of them dress terribly. Fine. Whatever you want to say, you would say right away. But if I say, tell me about your experience working with Asian-Americans, you’d say, “I’m out of here — I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.” Somehow it’s a lens of diversity people feel comfortable talking about without getting super defensive. But it’s also a lens where everyone feels they’re genuinely part of it. Sometimes doing gender diversity, a man might feel like I’m not sure I’m in this conversation. Or if it’s racial, “I’m Caucasian, so can I say something?” With generations, everyone is on equal footing. You can layer generations on other things, but it’s a really nice start.