Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss?

By John Cutter

My generation went to Vietnam, or stayed home and tried to change the world. We did drugs in the ’60s and then got lost in the Culture of Narcissism/Me Decade of the ’70s, which ended with Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech and, thank God, the death of disco.

We stopped having casual sex in the 1980s, when most of us finally grew up, made some money, elected Ronald Reagan, and started having Gen Y-ers.

Now in the New Millennium, we are your parents and bosses — excuse me, supervisors, or, if you prefer, team leaders. Apparently today’s Gen-Y reporters don’t like to be bossed around.

Intimidation, we are told, is a no-no.

Praise — specific and heartfelt — is needed. And not the kind of praise given by one of my favorite boomer bosses, who liked to call out across the room, “Well, that didn’t suck.”

It’s folly to try to sum up any generation, especially the post-war Boomers whose oldest members will be 60 next year and whose youngest, born in 1964, are barely into their 40s. But Jill Geisler’s column, “Boomer Bosses, Meet Your New Employees,” leads me to the next obvious headline: “Gen-Y Employees, Meet Your Boomer Bosses.”

When we Boomers were kids, our dads didn’t go to our Little League games, and if they did, they wanted to know why we struck out. No praise for our “good effort,” no Life-Savers or iPods to salve our wounds. Far from the over-parenting typical of Gen-Y’s parents, we were blissfully ignored, somehow trusted to make it to school, to practice, to adulthood, with a little less attention.

[W]e were blissfully ignored, somehow trusted to make it to school, to practice, to adulthood, with a little less attentionWe entered the profession just as things were falling apart — declining number of newspapers, fewer adults reading the paper, fading relevance in a multimedia world. And now we are faced with more such warnings, delivered in a blizzard of new words — wiki, blog, podcast, and my favorite (and the most terrifying to a rapidly-approaching-50 guy) — “Appealing to the younger demographic.”

Our first bosses were often terrors. An editor re-wrote the lead on my first A1 story and filed it off my screen at exactly 6:30 p.m. — the bulldog edition deadline. And didn’t apologize or try to make me feel good about it.

Another editor deleted my precious prose, line by line, as he told me, in a tone better reserved for calling a cab, that it WASN’T NEWS!

I had a managing editor curse me out in 1983. I cursed right back. (Ah, those were the days.) There once was the note from the city editor, to a bunch of us who screwed up several things on the metro front one night, that began, “I KNOW you are all smarter than this…” It was written in red china marker.

You get the idea. Mean, nasty, politically incorrect, probably even actionable offenses if I called HR.

And I LIKED them.

It was what we knew. These editors — almost always men — were like many of our dads, our teachers and our coaches. They were a mix of cruel and compassionate, remote and affable — as likely to take you out for a beer as to call you an idiot.

Believe me, I am not saying that’s the way to run a newsroom. But for many Boomers, it was a reality.

Which perhaps explains why some of us are schmucks, why we are puzzled at this whole praise thing, and why we wish you Gen Y-ers would understand the importance of the ladder of success, the joy of bureau work, the zen of 12-hour days.

Somehow, despite our best efforts not to grow up, we Boomers find ourselves with less life in journalism in front of us than behind us. And we are faced with all these damn young reporters, some — many? — with more training, talent, and confidence than we had as babes in the journalism woods of the 1970s and ’80s.

What are we to do? Try to understand you Gen Y-ers better, we’re told. In that vein, I asked some young reporters and old editors for their thoughts on creating intergenerational harmony. Here are a few of their responses:

  • Boomer bosses need to watch the sarcasm. It should not substitute for constructive criticism, coaching, teaching and mentoring. Although Gen-Y reporters (and Gen-X, for that matter) are comfortable with sarcasm and irony — indeed, in some ways it is the voice of their generations — it can hurt when it comes from a boss. And watch out for sarcasm in e-mail; the printed word doesn’t capture the right tone, so often comes off as just plain mean.
  • Praise is needed. Gen Y-ers, especially the high achievers we often attract in journalism, are used to hearing good words about their work, but want to know what it is that made it good. As one of them told me, “Whether you know it or not, we look for affirmation and praise from our editors. Most of us have no idea if we’re doing a good job at being journalists or not.”
  • Gen-Y reporters are competitive. They might often seem to us Boomers as one big happy party generation, but they can be as petty and jealous of each other as, well, their Boomer bosses are about our colleagues.
  • Younger journalists have a life outside of work. Some of us Boomers only learned about the work-family balance when we had our second — or third — marriages and late-in-life kids. By all reports, Gen-Y reporters will work their butts off, but 12 hours of face time isn’t their idea of impressing the boss. As Janet Weaver, executive editor of The Tampa Tribune said, “We’re going to have to look at our own workaholic tendencies and adjust our expectations — and maybe our pretty awful newsroom work habits — to reflect this reality.”
  • They want to succeed by a young age, moving on to high-profile beats and large papers. HEY — SO DID WE! I remember my crushing disappointment at age 25 when, amazingly, the large Northeastern papers failed to see I was ready for them. If we were more accepting of the longer road to the top, and Gen Y isn’t, is that our problem or theirs?
  • Speaking of the “paying your dues,” Gen-Y reporters need to understand that their boomer bosses aren’t trying to keep them down by expecting more patience as they learn the business. It’s a formula that worked for us, producing some fine journalists who remember their days on night cops, weekends, and more than their share of municipal meetings.
  • For our part, we Boomers should be aware that as Gen Y watches paper after paper reduce staff, their patience with the profession might wear out. We risk losing the best reporters if we don’t find ways to get them the good assignments that will build their experience a little earlier in their careers than it was in ours.

I also asked what each thought of the other generation. Here’s my favorite response: “(Boomers) were all at Woodstock, lost their ideals, eventually sold out to the man, started driving minivans, had a mid-life crisis (or three) at some point, and now are looking forward to taking all my Social Security money. Right?”

Wrong.

We also plan on using up Medicare before you get old.

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