What Is The Future Of The Office? Can Boomers and Millenials Mix?

Image credit Lloyd Alter

It has taken me a while to prepare this post about my interview of Ginny Baxter of Herman Miller; there was so much to take in. The website says "Ginny is a member of Herman Miller's Applied Knowledge team. She is intrigued by the nature of the individual at work and impact of the generations." That is an understatement; she is obsessed. She says:

When you take members of different generations, blend them together,and ask them to work side by side, you have both an opportunity and a challenge: the opportunity to engage a mix of people who bring their unique experiences and skills to an organization and the challenge of dealing with the generational differences that distinguish them.

Ginny Baxter of Herman Miller on Demographics from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

I filmed Ginny's blackboard presentation, and provide a rough transcript below. It is illustrated with wonderful drawings that were posted on the wall of a corridor in the Main building, describing the evolution of the worker.

How do you adapt to different ages, demographics, the millenials vs the boomers?

We tend not to look at things in terms of years of birth, but in terms of years of birth based of shared experiences. It is really that experience that forms peoples' expectations. So we have the Vets, born 1919-42, the Baby Boomers, born 1943 to 61, Generation X born 1962-77, the Millenials, born 1978-97 and "TBD" born since 1998.
What we are finding is that there are more similarities between Baby Boomers and Millenials than not. There are a lot of similarities in what they are looking for in the workplace, though their styles and their processes may be very different.

One of the reasons for that is that if you take a look, every generation begets the next, except that once the baby boomers were of the age to have children, many of them waited, so you have two generations raising the millenial generation. There are changes in each generation; the boomers saw things in black and white, and the tendency for generation X is to to go grey. The millenials act as a fulcrum between the others and get the full spectrum.

And they are all working in the same workplace. Gen X feels a bit sandwiched, because the others are large, at 72 million each, and the Gen X is only 57. And the millenials are the best educated generation the world has ever seen. They are graduating from college with triple majors. The other side of that coin is the pressure they are under, to compete for internships. They are global citizens, and this is a broad brush generalization, but they have a really finely tuned radar for authenticity.

More than any other generation, they are able to tell what is real. "If you tell me it is a micro-brewery beer, it better be a micro-brewery beer, because if you mislead me, it would just be wrong."

Generation X is the tech generation. That technology gave them mobility. It is a fact that whatever technology was around when you were born, you think it was around forever. Generation X had to learn, but I have children who believe that we have always had the internet! How could you live if you needed information and couldn't access it from something in the palm of your hand?

The challenge here is that the baby boomers have had to learn it. I used to use a typewriter but I had to learn how to use a computer and now use hand-helds. The boomers have had to learn adaptability. The technology that the millenials are using is pretty much the technology they were born with.

Last weekend, I had to do a drawing, and could have done it on sketchup, but I thought hey, lets draw it by hand, and had to spend half an hour finding my paper and pencils, never did find the masking tape. But you are right about the flexibility.

But using the canary paper, going back gives you an ability to see things differently. It is harder in CAD to play, to overlay.

But back to the question of Herman Miller designing environments for boomers and millenials. You are saying that they can co-exist?

Yes, there is a fulcrum that balances requirements. the first is design integrity. If something is well designed it means that the time has been taken to understand the nature of the problem.

The second is the portfolio. There isn't going to be a single universal chair. The Aeron is a fabulous chair but it comes in three sizes to be able to ajust to and support everyone.

The third is agility. Agile doesn't mean mobile; it doesn't mean that everything has to go on wheels. It means that if I am a table, i need to be a table that is flat, or a table up against the wall.

The other thing is, people change as they get older, and that's better than the alternative. So while the millenials are learning and while they are in school, they're (the "tbd"'s) coming, so what does that look like?

So it is as much about the quality. To be responsible to ourselves, our customers and our planet, we want to make sure it lasts. To use things over time you have to have that design integrity. I think that if you look at our classics, you will see how well they work, over time.

More on Herman Miller:
Herman Miller's GreenHouse Factory Generates 15 Pounds of Landfill Waste Per Month : TreeHugger
The Standing Desk: Why Hasn't It Caught On? : TreeHugger
LifeEdited Circa 1945: George Nelson's Storage Wall for Life Magazine : TreeHugger

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