Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap by Danilo Sirias Book Summary

Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap, Creating Authentic Teams for High Performance at Work by Danilo Sirias, Connie Fuller and Hank Karp


The three authors – consultant Hank Karp, organizational development executive Connie Fuller and academic Danilo Sirias – admit they began their project with some hypotheses about the differences between Boomers and Xers. One of the most powerfully suggestive was the theory that Xers are much more individualistic than Boomers, which has the potential to create some worrisome issues for managers. Although their statistical analysis found some support for this notion, it also revealed, paradoxically, that Xers are real team players, perhaps even more so than Boomers. The authors do their best to write around that awkward fact, but the fact stubbornly remains: when it comes to working on teams, only seemingly subtle differences separate Boomers and Xers. The book offers a lot of reliable, proven tips about team management, so it is worthwhile. However, its credibility is somewhat damaged by the authors’ repeated references to differences and gaps whose existence seems pretty minimal, even in the eyes of their own research. While that may make this seem like a curious book about a solution to an elusive problem, recommends it to those who are also pursuing solid, general team management guidance.


  • Teams are growing more important in the workplace.
  • If a team is to succeed, members must be considerate of each other.
  • The Boomer generation consists of people born between 1945 and 1962.
  • Generation Xers were born between 1963 and 1982.
  • Boomers are team-oriented and Xers are even more team-oriented.
  • Boomers have a longer-term perspective and more experience than Xers.
  • Xers have a tighter focus on the present and are more tech-savvy than Boomers.
  • But Boomers outnumber Xers (good news for Boomers: teams vote, majorities rule).
  • In practice, on the team, differences between generations may be insignificant.
  • Teams develop in stages and have different needs at each stage.
Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap Book Cover

Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap Book Summary

Boomers and Xers

Everyone born in the United States between 1945 and 1962 is a Boomer – a member of the Post-World War II Baby Boom generation. Everyone born between 1963 and 1982 is an Xer, from Generation X, a phrase coined because no one thought of anything more descriptive to call them.

What’s the difference between a Boomer and an Xer? That’s a very good question, particularly for managers who must fuse Boomers and Xers into good, working teams.

According to the results of hundreds of surveys conducted in large corporations and agencies and on college campuses, members of both generations perceive quite a few differences between Boomers and Xers, some more significant, some less, some more completely actual, others less so. Among them:

• Boomers are becoming grumpy old timers, much as their parents did.

• Boomers live to work; Xers work to live.

• Xers were latchkey kids.

• Boomers are older than Xers and, thus, usually rank higher than Xers in organizations. • Boomers vastly outnumber Xers. The advent of the birth control pill and Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion rights, influenced the years when members of Gen X were being born. • Boomers think the younger generation doesn’t work hard enough and is too self-indulgent, self-centered and purposeless. • Xers grew up with computers and are tech-savvy. • Xers saw that their parents’ loyalty to corporations was rewarded by downsizing and layoffs. Thus, Xers don’t make long-term commitments to companies. • Xers didn’t experience the great national struggles that helped form Boomer attitudes (including the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights struggle and the women’s movement).

“Listen to the water cooler or break room discussions in any organization in the country and you will hear stereotyping about your own peer group that probably doesn’t apply to you and about others that probably doesn’t apply to them.”

The last point is particularly important. Boomers learned to suspect authority. Their generation’s formative experiences involved finding the truths that their presidents – Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson – were trying to hide.

But now, Boomers themselves are the authority figures. They’re in the rather “schizo” position of trying to fill the shoes of people they once despised. The slogan of young Boomers was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” Now the Boomers are turning – or passing – 50, and 30 is long gone.

“Critical business decisions are being made every day on the basis of these perceptions.”

Coming up right behind them are Xers – highly skilled, individualistic, comfortable with technology and endowed with attitudes of entitlement, individuality and insouciance. Clearly, putting Xers and Boomers on the same team could cause problems. But does it? Yes and no.

Two studies aimed to answer that question decisively. The first selected a sample of 189 Boomers and 209 Xers. Each respondent went through a “Team and Organizational Behavior Inventory.” This measures teamwork skills and attitudes. The assumption going into the study was that Boomers placed a higher value on teamwork than Xers. In fact, strong evidence supports the opposite conclusion: Xers are more team-oriented than Boomers, by a wide margin.

“Boomers are in positions of power in their organizations, and they are setting policies that will govern the workplace for the next several decades.”

The second study surveyed a sample of 417 Boomers and Xers to determine which group was more individualistic. Gen Xers, it turns out, scored much higher on measures of individualism. So, the somewhat surprising conclusion is that, “Generation X is significantly more individualistic and significantly more team-oriented than the Baby Boomer generation.”

Do the Generational Differences Matter?

Clearly, team building has to be an organizational priority. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers both value teamwork, Gen Xers even more strongly than Boomers. Currently, two philosophies of team building are prevalent:

“Only 25% of employees today consider themselves truly committed to their organizations and plan to stay two or more additional years…Another 39% say they plan to stay…but they describe themselves as trapped. And feel that they have no option.”

• Traditional model – Strong teams depend on shared values and interests. The Traditional understanding assumes that basic laws of behavior govern teams, so categorizing individuals based on behavior and then training them to fulfill the definition of their behavioral category is important. People have to get along, conflicts must be open to resolution and everyone has to participate. • Authentic model – Strength depends on individual uniqueness. In contrast to the assumptions underlying the Traditional model, the Authentic understanding stresses individuality and the here-and-now. Team members’ commitment to team values grows out of individual objectives, not out of shared values. Individual autonomy and uniqueness are paramount.

“This is what authentic teams are all about – real people doing real work that benefits them and the company for which they work.”

In addition to the Traditional and Authentic models, several other team paradigms exist, among them:

• Academic – Faculty departments in universities consist of highly individualistic experts who have an extremely strong commitment to autonomy but who do collaborate with each other from time to time. • Sports – Consider the difference between the National Football League, whose players wear masks and seem by and large autonomous, and the National Basketball Association, which exalts individual celebrity athletes. It’s significant that Boomers watch football, while Xers are basketball fans.

How Teams Shape Up

The metamorphosis of a team has four stages:

  1. Formation – Teams begin as aggregations of individuals, often unacquainted with each other. Individually, members may not know why the team includes them, but each one certainly thinks about how he or she will benefit from being part of the team. This phase is exciting, as team members explore options and enjoy the novelty of working together. People tend to be polite, even to a fault. One of the more difficult chores at this stage is to get people to reveal what they really think and feel. To make a success of this phase, make sure that all meetings take place as scheduled, and that the team is given real work to do early in its existence (such as drafting its own mission statement).
  2. Storm – You can tell that the storm phase is near when people start to miss meetings and conflicts break out among group members. This is a healthy sign of development, although productivity will fall. If the team stays together, it will be successful, but it takes a strong coach to keep the team united and on track. The real challenge for the coach is to force the team to resolve its own problems as a team. Using sub-teams (smaller groups of team members) and playing games during meetings can help mend relationships.
  3. Norm – The transition to this phase begins when each team member feels valuable, appreciated and important to the team. Members begin to talk more about issues, to gossip about each other less and to find solutions instead of just jawboning about problems. In this phase, individual team members respect each other and value each other’s unique individuality. Performance and productivity soar.
  4. Perform – Team members transcend differences of gender, race, religion and age – including generation – and see each other as individuals endowed with special skills and talents. They may fight like cats and dogs, but they esteem each other and work well together. This phase is team nirvana, except that nothing happens in nirvana, but a lot happens in this final stage. Healthy teams routinely surpass production and performance goals.

Solving Adversarial Generation Gaps

Boomers and Xers are more or less natural adversaries, as has always been true of the young and the old. The problem varies in severity from organization to organization. Some companies are almost paralyzed by the conflict, while this particular conflict is scarcely evident at others. Actually, calling the generations “natural” adversaries may be a bit misleading. Do not suppose that conflict is inevitable, or that you must accept it as part of the natural order. Adversarial relationships have these characteristics:

• Conflict is unproductive.

• Disagreements are chronic and feud-like.

• Communication is poor and contact rare or nonexistent. • People need each other but don’t admit it. • Winning is not enough; the other guy must lose.

As a manager, you can only deal with an adversarial relationship two ways: prevent it from happening or resolve it if it occurs.

Preventing Adversarial Relationships

Prevent or minimize divisive relationships by taking these managerial measures:

• Understand rewards – Sometimes, time and attention are precious commodities.

• Remember that rewards trump punishment – Carrots work better than sticks.

• Be clear about objectives – Is the goal to have people get along or to work together? Be sure every team member has a firm grasp on the team’s mutual goals. • Remember that equity trumps equality – Not everyone wants the same thing. • Watch what you say – Never taunt one generation with another’s characteristics.

“Individual autonomy is the key value.”

The above preventive measures are well and good, but what if an adversarial relationship already exists before you take charge or evolves despite your best efforts? When prevention fails, follow this process to arrive at a cure:

• Define roles – Delineate wants and concerns.

• Insist on resolution – The groups at conflict must commit to resolving it. Make it clear that they will suffer specific penalties if the conflict continues. • Use a facilitator – Work with a neutral broker who can be fair to both sides, respect confidences and speak the truth even if no one else dares or cares to state it. • Hear and respect both positions – Let each side make its own stance crystal clear. • Make a contract – Establish a relationship based on stated terms. • Establish a process – Use such techniques as the “fishbowl” in which members of each group “eavesdrop” on the others.

Boomers and Xers can work together productively, if they respect each other. Keeping Xers in the workforce depends greatly on these factors:

• Engage them – Keep their work interesting and fun.

• Pay up – Money talks, sings and dances.

• Respect their personalities – Recognize the casual, individualistic nature of Xers by allowing casual dress and providing offices instead of cubicles. • Be a meritocracy – Reward performance, not longevity. • Build a balanced culture – Work isn’t everything, after all.

About the Authors

Danilo Sirias

Hank Karp is a principal of Personal Growth Systems, a Virginia-based consulting firm. Connie Fuller is an organizational development specialist at AG Communication System, a Lucent Technologies subsidiary. Danilo Sirias is assistant professor of management at Saginaw Valley State University.