It is astonishing how many articles, essays, and opinion pieces there are about generational differences between baby boomers and millennials. Not to mention the YouTube videos, memes, and TikToks poking fun and parodying one side or the other. My favorite is here (and I’m a boomer!).
The last thing I want to do is write yet another blog post pontificating on how the generations misunderstand one another. Instead, I want to focus on what both groups share – especially when talking about dentists working together in an office as owner and associate or transitioning a practice from one dentist to another.
First, though, some definitions. Pew Research pins baby boomers as born between 1946 and 1964 (currently age 56 to 75), and millennials between 1981 and 2004 (currently age 26 – 40). Based on demographics, most of the owners on ADAPT’s platform fall into the baby boomer category and most of the buyers and associates can be considered millennials.
In very broad strokes, boomers tend to characterize millennials as lazy, entitled, and clueless. Meanwhile, millennials characterize boomers as obsessed with working over living, claiming hard work when it was circumstance or luck, and assuming authority and confidence that is unwarranted. It is fun(?) to watch and easy to dispute the themes on an individual basis. At the same time, different economic and cultural trends are in place during each generation’s formative years – and their impact is real. That’s why it helps to have an appreciation for these issues when working together intergenerationally.
Look for the commonalities
I know this sounds simple, but it is amazing how often people overlook what they have in common in favor of fighting about how they are different.
Most of my pre-ADA career was in sales. When I was interacting with a customer or prospect for the first time, my initial goal was always to find out what we had in common. Not educate them on my product. Not establish my credentials. Not haggle over price. Certainly not close the sale. All I wanted to do was discover what we had in common — because I knew that differences/conflicts would inevitably arise as we developed the professional relationship. That touchstone of commonality helped keep the relationship going through any rough spots.
So what are the commonalities within dentistry?
Dentists complete a grueling training program that is highly selective and demanding. That shared professional training experience creates a common bond even when the schools are different.
Dentists (and everyone else for that matter) want to be paid fairly.
Dentists want recognition for their hard work and the value they create.
Dentists want to make a contribution and to be successful in both their professional and personal lives.
But we all have to remember that how someone goes about achieving those common goals is often different. Say it with me: “My way is not the only way.”
Be willing to learn from each other
While a different approach may be wrong for you, it does not mean it is wrong. Just different. In fact, in the best situations both parties learn from one another and celebrate those differences. When a new dentist wants to use a different material or supplier than you have used for the last 25 years, it might be worth a conversation. What about the material or supplier is compelling to your new colleague? You might find that using a digital scanner lets you increase efficiency with fewer remakes, as opposed to the Polyether impression material that has been working just fine for years. Likewise, a newer dentist can learn the best practices that help an experienced dentist complete a perfect crown preparation in half the time.
I was born right at the tail end of the baby boom and have some millennials on my staff. I would not at all describe them as lazy, entitled, or clueless, but there is no doubt that they view the world differently than I do. They often make different choices than I would. They use Slack and keep asking me to post things on LinkedIn – two things that I still do not know how to do. In my case, it has caused me to reevaluate some of my own choices and examine why I value things the way that I do. I have certain blind spots that come from being raised in a small town in southern Ohio. Being open to other points of view has expanded my world and made it more interesting.
Even so, I know that working with other generations can be tricky. Dentistry’s no different! Dentists value their autonomy. That’s why it’s so important to work out how decisions are going to be made – which decisions are owned by the associate and which ones are owned by the owner. This is less of an issue in an immediate sale when the buyer immediately becomes the decision-maker. But if the original owner is staying on, both sides need to discuss decision-making responsibilities to ensure everyone is on the same page.
How to overcome the generational divide
So how do we get beyond the stereotypes and preconceived notions? Think about asking yourself – and any potential hires – several questions. Then listen carefully to the answers. You may be surprised by what you have in common.
- Why did you choose dentistry?
- What has been your most satisfying interaction with a patient?
- What you do outside of dentistry that your profession has made possible?
- What sparks passion in you – whether in or beyond dentistry?
- How are your core values reflected in your work?
As humans, we are all wired to engage with stories like these.
Find out what you have in common early and then come back to it if the relationship begins to falter. If you cannot find the commonality, it could be a red flag that may indicate the relationship is unlikely to work. Do NOT consider that a failure. Rather, it is a major win to identify a bad match early, before both sides have invested time, energy, and resources. If you ignore that gut feeling, you may face bigger challenges down the road:
- That associate may be unhappy in your practice
- That owner may not mentor and guide you
- The transfer of the practice might be contentious and aggravating
- Ultimately, the relationship may fail
When you uncover that commonality, though, the result can be magic. It can provide a foundation for a successful working relationship that could extend for years, even decades. If you’re a longtime owner planning ahead to retirement, hiring the right associate now can set you up for an eventual successor.
And if you find the right person, you may even be able to handle some tongue-in-cheek “Ok, boomer!” or millennial jokes.