The catchphrase “OK boomer” stings if, like me, you happen to be a baby boomer: someone born after the Second World War but before Beatlemania. The pithy meme emerged in a particularly scathing TikTok video, from November 2019, targeting an unidentified older man who had posted a short rant about “infantile” generations that suffered from a “Peter Pan syndrome.” He claimed younger people were “hobbled” by social media and never wanted to grow up and assume adult responsibilities. The retort caught fire among millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012). USA Today quoted a TikToker describing the phrase’s popularity as “a sophisticated, mass retaliation” against the dominance of the postwar generation, while the New York Times said it “marks the end of friendly generational relations.” It continues to epitomize an undercurrent of sheer exasperation with boomers for climate change and their supposed resistance to evolving societal values, technological advances, and the inclusion of minorities.
“OK boomer” came to mind several times as I read Karl Moore’s Generation Why, a valiant but largely unconvincing attempt by a boomer to awaken his peers to the values, attitudes, and ways of rising generations. What’s strange about Moore’s book is that it is either oblivious to or dismissive of the signs that it’s time for boomers to step back. Intentionally or not, it comes off as a thinly veiled attempt to solidify the status quo by educating corporate executives on how to win over and successfully manage those now coming of age as professionals.
As a leading and widely published expert in management studies, Moore should be well equipped to explain emerging trends in corporate culture. With thousands of business journal articles to his name, he possesses senior-level experience, impressive academic credentials, and fresh insights from guests on his weekly CEO Series podcast. With his book, Moore sets out to share what he has learned about leadership imperatives and working with up‑and-comers. Having conducted hundreds of interviews, mostly in North America, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, he distills these lessons into two main assessments of millennials and Gen Z. First and foremost, he claims, their top priority is for work to be meaningful and impactful. Second, they are committed to achieving authenticity and work-life balance, breaking older moulds of behaviour.
Younger managers and employees, Moore contends, are steeped in a “Postmodern worldview” that calls into question established protocols; leads with emotion rather than facts, logic, and rationality; embraces pluralism, fused with moral relativism; and prioritizes individual voices over universal truths. Senior managers seeking to retain junior employees are advised to practise such strategies as “active listening” and “reverse mentoring.” They should embrace technocratic frameworks —including the “Stop/Keep/Start Doing Approach”— to prompt “effective feedback” and “meaningful conversations.”
Much of Generation Why approaches the challenge of working with younger employees from a rather narrowly circumscribed, distinctly North American perspective. Prominent among Moore’s corporate leadership exemplars are American management gurus like Peter F. Drucker. Moore cites Montreal business leaders who have appeared on his podcast, including Geoff Molson, the CEO of the Montreal Canadiens. But readers will look in vain for unexpected executives or for rising stars from, say, Asia, Eastern Europe, or Latin America.
Moore rightly points out differences between millennials and Gen Z. “While you may see yourself as having had an incredibly different upbringing from your Millennial counterparts or employees,” he writes, “try to imagine that Generation Z does not remember a world before 9/11 or the Columbine High School shootings.” Yet much of his analysis effectively lumps the two groups together. Indeed, the “younger generation” is highly variegated, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking social psychologist Jean M. Twenge, most recently the author of Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future. Instead of relying upon interviews and business management literature, Twenge designs authoritative surveys and produces evidence-based empirical research. Moore had likely finished his manuscript by the time Generations was published, but it’s surprising that Twenge’s other influential books — including Generation Me, The Narcissism Epidemic, and iGen — are missing from his bibliography.
Nonetheless, Moore presents a handy synthesis of the well-known business management literature up until about 2018. If much of the overarching analysis of the changing paradigm and the perceived traits and behaviours of millennials sounds familiar, it is because he relies heavily upon the pioneering work of McKinsey & Company’s Steven Hankin about “the war for talent,” explored further in a book of that title by McKinsey over twenty years ago. Moore’s attempt to cast millennials and Gen Z as exemplars of a “Postmodern worldview” is less successful because it’s based upon contested psychosocial theory. And the whole notion of utilizing “Five Emotional Levers”— as espoused by Quy Huy of the INSEAD business school — to engage your team’s “emotions” smacks of top-down management and mechanistic manipulation, rather than responsiveness to younger employees.
To his credit, Moore does address the profound impact of COVID‑19 upon the corporate workplace, making specific reference to the “Great Resignation” and “job hopping” as well as to resistance to the return of the traditional nine-to-five. That said, he pays relatively little attention to other social forces that are impacting business culture, such as technology-driven disruptive innovation, Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism movements, shifting norms around gender and identity, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Ultimately, Generation Why is filled with conventional, pragmatic, and increasingly dated management strategies for boomers. “You have to run faster to keep up” is something of a Moore axiom. But in proffering advice on how to deal with the new breed of corporate aspirants, he’s scrambling to keep up like most of his contemporaries.
Paul W. Bennett is an author, education columnist, and regular guest commentator on talk radio. He lives in Halifax.