A generation apart
Baby boomers enjoy a position of authority in many practices, strongly influencing workplace culture. Here's an inside look at how they shape practice.
BABY BOOMERS, NOW ROUGHLY 46 TO 60 YEARS old, hold positions of authority as supervising veterinarians or owners at many practices. And their generational characteristics shape the work environment. Dr. Jim Guenther, MBA, CVPM, a consultant in Asheville, N.C., with Brakke Consulting, says most of the owners he consults with are baby boomers. And so is he.
Dr. Guenther points out that not all of these characteristics apply to all boomers. They can possess some of the traits, but Dr. Guenther says you shouldn't put boomers in a box. "I've changed," he says. "I reprogrammed myself once I recognized some of these traits and sought assistance. I've learned to see things from different generations' perspectives." And you can, too.
On the job
Boomer characteristics: May manipulate rules to meet goals; tend to be service-oriented people pleasers; sensitive to feedback.
Dr. Guenther says being service-oriented is another way of saying "workaholic." He admits he was one once, but now he takes time to enjoy life. When he was in practice he says he was just as guilty as the next practitioner of thinking, "I worked hard, so you must, too. How dare you ask about vacation time? How dare you say you only want to work 40 hours a week?"
But boomers can learn from Gen-Xers just as Dr. Guenther did. "My mind changed as I realized the young practitioners were right," he says. "They don't want to be a slave to practice." Boomers can learn how to achieve better life balance. But it may take some flexibility.
Gen-Xer Dr. Elizabeth Kraft works with an owner who's been practicing for 25 years. "She has a certain way she likes to do things," says Dr. Kraft, a member of the Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board. "She's developed habits that work for her and she assumes that they'll work for the rest of her team." Sometimes that inflexibility, common in boomers, can cause a head-on collision with people from Dr. Kraft's generation, who tend to be less formal and more flexible.
But letting go isn't easy. "Some veterinarians feel like I did once—veterinary medicine is our life, not a means to have a life," Dr. Guenther says.
Pulling back on the need to please can lead to better life balance, too. "Most baby boomer veterinarians want to make sure 100 percent of the people are 100 percent satisfied," says Dr. Guenther. "They sometimes don't quite understand that you can't please everyone all the time.
Boomer characteristics: Optimistic; can be very driven; seem to have it easier than prior generations.
"Very driven—exactly; baby boomer practitioners view veterinary practice as their life," says Dr. Guenther. "This is all they know. It wasn't until 10 or 15 years ago that I developed any hobbies. And now I really see the value in doing so.
"Our parents grew up during the Depression; they struggled to make ends meet," he says. "They didn't have the dollars to do things but yet they gave us opportunities. So we wanted to give back to our parents and our families." In the process, baby boomers created a lifestyle that was easier than their parents'. But they didn't do it by saving.
Boomer characteristics: More free-spending and less budget-conscious; comfortable buying on credit.
"Budget? If there's money in the checkbook, boomers spend it," Dr. Guenther says. Boomers don't think through whether they need that new piece of equipment. The previous generation, for example, only bought an item if they had the money and needed it. But boomers don't distinguish between "want" and "need."
That approach coupled with a feeling of immortality makes for a dangerous combination. "Boomers will buy now and pay later," says Dr. Guenther. "They'll just have to work a couple of extra hours to pay for it." Of course, with the baby boomers' dogged work ethic, they don't see that as a problem.
Dr. Guenther says this tendency to borrow without hesitation has receded as the generation has progressed. "Older veterinarians have paid all this interest on things they didn't really need and haven't made enough income to recoup their costs," he says. "Some boomers have taken from their own pockets. And as they've aged, they've learned from those experiences."
Dr. Guenther says veterinarians in general pay their debts. "They'll eat Beanie Weenies and pay off their debt instead of treating themselves to a steak dinner," he says. But sometimes this trait turns into a fault. For example, "There's an increasing number of veterinarians who'll pay a bill right when it comes in," he says. "But when it comes to improving cash flow by lowering accounts receivable, there's a disconnect. They're paying quickly and getting paid slower. It goes back to being people pleasers. They think, 'The drug company will be pleased, and the client will be even happier because I'm not asking them to pay me right away.'"
Boomer characteristics: Like to take time to discuss ideas; want others to follow the rules; care what others think.
This idea of pleasing people carries over into boomers' communication styles. They tend to care what other people think. Not wanting negative feedback is one possible reason practitioners aren't often open to discussing ideas, ventures Dr. Guenther. Or maybe they just don't know how or don't like to discuss ideas with potential for conflict, he says.
Dr. Kraft says open communication is certainly a goal in her practice. But sometimes it's not possible. "Boomers hesitate to invest time and money into staff development. Lines of communication wither because they're not recognized as vital structures that need constant care," Dr. Kraft says.
"Sometimes we end up biting our lips because the owner's the ultimate decision-maker," she says. "Even when I can be heard, I still sometimes feel my ideas weren't considered."
Job satisfaction and motivation
Boomer characteristics: Desire financial rewards and peer recognition. They want the job to enhance their egos.
Boomer veterinarians sometimes view their practice as their retirement—often not a secure proposition, Dr. Guenther says. "They want to be comfortable in retirement, yet they think their practice is worth more than it really is. They think, 'I spent all this time working 60 hours a week for the past 40 years, so it must be worth a fortune,'" he says.
These veterinarians also want to be recognized for their success. Dr. Guenther says peer recognition isn't as important to boomers as recognition from their parents. "I think a lot of boomers had domineering parents and want to stand up and say, 'I'm better than what you thought I was,'" he says.
"My father died in 1972, and for years after his death, I kept trying to prove something to him," says Dr. Guenther. "I wanted to prove that even though I didn't have the same skills as he did, I was worthy."
The bigger picture
"Boomers don't like to be told what to do," says Dr. Guenther. "They want to think something's their idea. They take everything personally. They don't like feedback." These traits, he says, cause generational clashes every day.
The important thing to remember, says Dr. Kraft: "Every generation should be valued for the experiences and the knowledge it brings to the field. If we're flexible and practice being good communicators then we'll serve our clients and patients to the best of our abilities."
Jessica Harper is a freelance writer and editor in Seattle. Send questions or comments to email@example.com