Boomers vs. Xers: Can't we all just get along?
Of course we can, says a leading diversity coach. But first, the generations have to learn to respect what they can offer each other - and take it one relationship at a time.
By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Often, the tensions are subtle and unspoken, but they're there: Baby Boom managers, those in their mid-40s and older, have a tough time understanding the group coming up behind them in the corporate ranks - Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1979, the first generation to grow up with the Internet.

Accustomed to everything happening more and more quickly, they are an impatient bunch. Rather than pay their dues and work patiently toward promotions, they'd rather quit and go elsewhere: Xers change jobs, on average, every two years.

To Boomers who spent decades earning their stripes, Xers often look like spoiled brats. By Xers' lights, meanwhile, Boomers just don't get it - and when are they going to retire and get out of the way, anyway?

Enter Janet Reid, a managing partner at Global Lead, a worldwide diversity consulting firm that numbers Procter & Gamble, Walt Disney, Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, and Radio Shack among its clients. Reid specializes in teaching Boomers and Xers to find common ground at work. Some excerpts from our recent conversation:

By encouraging the generations to talk out their differences, companies are hoping to reduce turnover among Gen Xers, right? Does it work?

Employers have really only recently become aware of how big a problem Gen X turnover is. It's an enormous threat, when you consider that this is the generation corporate America is counting on to run things when Boomers retire.

So yes, companies are starting to try to address it. They want to reach those Gen Xers who are very talented, and who want to move up faster than most companies move anybody up, and keep those future leaders from quitting.

How do you do that?

Often, Gen Xers will approach their careers with the attitude, "I'm just going to keep changing jobs until I get the title I want and the pay I want, until I reach Nirvana." So employers who want to keep them have to offer them bigger responsibilities and interesting projects.

As long as they are involved and learning and contributing, they'll stay. Pay for performance works, too. Give them more money to go along with those bigger challenges.

But one thing we find is crucial is the bond between individual Boomer managers and their Gen X subordinates. If you work on improving that one-on-one relationship, you can eliminate a lot of problems that lead to high turnover.

Can you give us an example?

Sure. We try to give Boomers practical tools for coaching and managing Xers. For instance, one trait that is shared by almost all Gen Xers is, they like to explore and problem-solve on their own. So, to get the best results from them, you can tell them what you want them to do, but don't tell them how to do it. They want to figure that out themselves.

Any advice for Gen Xers on how to get along with their Boomer bosses?

First of all, understand that, to a Boomer, changing jobs every two years, or every six months or what-have-you, looks like instability and immaturity, an unwillingness to stick with something. So what? Well, most hiring managers are Boomers, so sooner or later you do have to settle down somewhere and stick it out for a while, or risk running out of places to go.

Most Gen Xers, as they go along in a relationship with a boss who is making a genuine effort to be a good mentor, will start to realize that, hey, this person's experience really does have something to offer me that I can use. Ideally what you get is a series of trades between two people, where each one gains something specific from the other.

In one of my client companies, I had a Boomer manager who gave her Gen X employee a lot of valuable advice about navigating the politics of the place to get something done. In exchange, the employee set the boss up with an iPod and taught her how to download business books on it, so now she uses that all the time.

When each person gets something he or she wants, there's a lot less emphasis on the problems and more on, OK, how can we make the best deal here?

And you know, to a large extent generations are really a state of mind anyway. My 85-year-old mom is a member of the generation we call Veterans - the parents of the Boomers - but she sends me silly jokes on her laptop all the time. She really acts more like an Xer.

Every workplace also has some people like that, who defy the generational boundaries, and they are great because you can enlist them to help bring other people together.

One last question. Since Global Lead operates all around the world, I'm curious: Do you see these generational differences everywhere, or is this mostly a U.S. phenomenon?

Oh, we see the same thing everywhere. In fact, the toughest training we do is for American companies doing business in China. The Chinese government's one-child-per-family policy means that each Chinese person now in his or her twenties has two obsessed parents and four doting grandparents. They are called the Little Emperors, and they expect you, their boss, to act like a doting parent, too. The attitude is, "Boss, you are here to advance me."

When U.S. managers complain to me about their young American employees' sense of entitlement, I have to laugh. Compared to the generation gap in China, what we have here is nothing.

A generation of workers can't get ahead - because aging boomers above them won't budge. Fortune's Anne Fisher has tips for breaking through the Grey Ceiling. Top of page