Clash of the Generations

When Bill Horne sauntered into an evening meet-and-greet being held by a local packaging company in search of fresh IT talent, the retired computer engineer knew his chances of leaving the event with a job offer were slim.

Now 56, Horne had spent 25 years working in the telecommunications industry before retiring from Verizon in 2002. Six years later, Horne says he knew that the IT field had changed dramatically, rendering him “out of step” with cutting-edge IT.

But after watching his retirement savings dwindle and the demand for small side projects disappear, Horne says he was “economically motivated” to re-enter the workforce. A casual meet-and-greet seemed like a perfect opportunity for the baby boomer to get his feet wet.

Horne was in for a shock, however. Expecting an informal recruiting event, he found himself in the thick of what “felt like a discotheque,” surrounded by throngs of aggressive twentysomethings jostling for the attention of senior-level managers and barking into their cell phones.

“They were talking a lot, the noise was deafening, and the atmosphere was loud, confused and not very businesslike,” Horne recalls.

His experience is far from unique. Throughout busy job fairs, crowded boardrooms and hectic IT departments across the U.S., a battle royal is brewing between aging baby boomers and fresh-faced millennials — two distinct generations with differing work styles, conflicting cultures and disparate skill sets.

On the one side stand the boomers: IT veterans valued for their unwavering work ethic, vast experience and institutional memory. On the opposing side, the millennials: Web 2.0 natives with technology in their DNA who would rather text and Twitter than talk and who have little patience with the way things have always been done.

IT managers are facing a tough predicament: a head-on collision between two vastly talented yet differing generations, both vying for full-time employment in a fast-shrinking economy. And it’s happening everywhere. “Baby boomers coming back into the market is very common,” says Brooke Kline, chief technology officer at iBank, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based money management firm. “At the same time, we have just as many millennials coming out of college looking to explore new opportunities.”

Deciding whom to hire — or lay off — requires sorting through a minefield of competing technical expertise, business acumen, cultural preferences and career expectations.

New Rules

Baby boomers and millennials might have eased by each other in the workplace with no clash at all, as boomers gradually retired and millennials moved in and up the ranks. But a faltering economy changed all that.

Over the past 15 months, the stock market has wiped out $2 trillion in Americans’ retirement savings, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And even before the financial crisis hit full force, a February 2008 survey by job site revealed that nearly three out of five U.S. workers age 50 or older were planning to look for work elsewhere after retiring from their current jobs.

And that can put them into competition with candidates their children’s ages, says Horne, because once an employee retires, he loses his seniority. “I have realistic expectations that I’m not going to be appointed vice president,” he says.

As boomers struggle to resuscitate their careers and millennials flood the workforce, IT managers are having to rethink what it means to be an IT professional and to weigh the relative value of traditional and new-age skills .

That’s not always easy. For example, millennials have a tendency to eat, sleep and breathe Web 2.0 technologies, and the value of that may not be immediately clear to a hiring manager.

“When my boomer colleagues see me texting, blogging and using wikis, they see it as social” as opposed to work-related, says Brett Gardner Bonner, a 26-year-old engineering specialist at FedEx Corp. “But they’re just tools I use to achieve higher results by gaining consensus and connecting with others.”

Yet it’s precisely these tools — and users’ proficiency levels — that are dividing the generations into warring factions. “A millennial is more likely to communicate electronically or be more involved in social networking,” says Sherry Aaholm, FedEx ‘s vice president of IT.

Take, for example, Bonner, who practically showers with his BlackBerry Storm and claims his familiarity with Web 2.0 tools is “almost innate.” He says he regularly relies on wikis, Twitter and microblogging services like Yammer to communicate with colleagues and swap information. “Boomers prefer conference calls and e-mails, whereas I prefer texting and wikis,” says Bonner.

But it’s not just the Web. “There’s a lot of new technology — like agile software development and open source — that young kids have picked up, whereas some of the older folks are still working on migrating,” says Jeff Schuster, a recruiter at IT consulting company Halo Group LLC in Novi, Mich.

Boomers are better known for their expertise in more traditional technologies such as IT infrastructure and operating systems. That’s good news for FedEx, which is always on the lookout for IT professionals with the skills needed to support its largely mainframe-based package-tracking system. But that type of expertise can limit boomers’ prospects elsewhere, Schuster says.

And it’s not just about skills; attitude also plays a major role in who gets hired. For example, millennials’ eagerness to adopt new technologies — and some boomers’ tendency to resist doing so — may make recruiters think twice before bringing on an older candidate in need of extensive training.

“The boomer folks are a little more fixed in their ways and not as open to learning a new set of technology skills,” says Aaholm. “That’s the difference with the millennial generation — they’re willing to expand their skill base.”

This eagerness to learn is giving many millennials a leg up on the competition. But there’s a managerial flip side to consider. Young IT workers who are bold enough to take on new technologies are also more likely to be impatient with the constraints of traditional workplaces.

“There’s an expectation on the part of millennials that the people who are managing them won’t just see them as cogs in the machine but will be flexible with them and take their preferences into account,” says Tom Clement, 54, an IT manager at application development firm Serena Software Inc. in Redwood City, Calif.

That kind of rugged individualism delivers enormous value to pioneering companies such as Serena, which is adopting innovative development trends, such as “business mashups” or composite applications, to stay ahead of the curve.

“It takes guts to build mashups, and that’s what is great about the millennials,” says Clement. “They’ve got the guts to go in and create a new application, whereas [boomers] aren’t as emboldened.”

Businesses that expect all employees to march to the beat of the same drummer, however, may have a tough time reining in millennials’ more spirited wo

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