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Office parties show generation split

The Baltimore Sun

They're graying. They're in charge. And this holiday, they're really, really cheap.

Baby boomers, the generation that prides itself on idealism, are the bosses least likely to throw a holiday party, dole out bonuses or send so much as a fruit basket, according to a newly released survey commissioned by American Express.

Chalk it up to another crack in the generational divide.

Workplaces now have four generations showing up - or not showing up - at Christmas parties, "all with their different expectations and different attitudes and different ways they wish the party would happen," said Lynne Lancaster, co-founder of BridgeWorks, a consulting firm specializing in generational differences in the workplace.

The gap is wide enough that each group is distinct: traditionalists, middle-age boomers, 30-something Gen-Xers, and younger Millennials.

"Either people don't come or they come and complain," said Lancaster. "I think the boomers are just fed up."

It's not just parties. Younger bosses are more likely to consider bonuses this year, according to the American Express survey. Further, in an especially unexpected trend, older bosses were less willing to give workers extra time off than their younger counterparts.

The American Express Small Business Monitor polled only businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

Boomers aren't the only bosses planning a skimpy holiday season, and smaller businesses aren't the only ones affected. The glitter has gone out of company galas across the board. According to a poll of large companies by executive recruitment firm Battalia Winston International, 85 percent are planning parties, down from 94 percent.

That may still seem like a chunk of tinsel, but 85 percent is the third-lowest number of business parties in the survey's 19 years, trailing only the recession of 1991 and the somber weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Marie Ivancenvis, who with her husband owns Regency Party Rental and Productions Inc. in Lake Worth, Fla., said business is robust. But, she adds, "The trend we do see is that people who are partying are more conservative with their dollars."

Clients as well as staff are likely to be left with an empty stocking. American Express reports only 59 percent of the business owners surveyed said they would fork over cash for seasonal swag such as fruit baskets, calendars and cards. That's sharply down from last year's 70 percent.

Likewise, fewer business owners intend to hand out employee gifts or throw a holiday party, much less spring for year-end bonuses or a raise.

Among these blue Christmas plans, though, baby-boomer business owners and managers stand out as miserly, according to the American Express survey. Younger Millennials - those born starting in 1980 - have been described as the most self-centered of the four generations now in the workplace. Boomers who came of age in the 1960s practically redefined partying.

Not this year.

Only 41 percent of bosses or managers 42 and older planned to throw a party for their employees. By contrast, more than half of younger bosses - Gen-Xers and Millennials - planned to party hearty. "It surprised and alarmed me a little," said Alice Bredin, a Boston author and consultant to American Express.

Baby-boomer lawyer Willie Gary, 60, scratched his business bash this year. For 25 years, thousands of revelers crowded into Stuart, Fla., for Gary's law office block party, one that the attorney started giving before his 40th birthday.

Gary blamed permitting hassles for the cancellation. Other boomers weigh party plans against equal parts fiscal caution and frustration. Caution, said Bredin, because a boomer is more likely to have suffered through economic downturns than a younger counterpart. Frustration, said consultant Lancaster, because a boomer boss may be trying to satisfy employees ranging from Korean War veterans to freshly tattooed college grads.

Older workers "may look forward to the party all year, put on a special necktie and bring their spouse," Lancaster points out. "And the Gen-Xers are asking, 'How do we get out of it this year?'"

Boomer bosses trying to please all parties could be left holding a turkey - literally. Lancaster cites the case of a company that had for decades given each of its employees a frozen turkey. Early on, she said, "It was a wonderful thing." Now, though, vegetarians and vegans are on the employee roster. There are more people living alone, more couples with no children - and much less appetite for a giant bird.

There's another generational difference. Boomers gravitate to traditional seating and buffets, said Valerie Mosher, catering director for Eventmakers International LLC in Stuart. "There's more intermingling, more entertainment" in parties arranged by the under-42 set. It's common to set up sofas and lounge areas, bring in specialty lighting and hire entertainment, she notes, creating "more of a club feel."

A tight-fisted boomer boss's expectations of saving time and money could ricochet, warns Bredin. "I think cutting back on holiday parties and time off or even thoughtful gifts for employees, whether it is time off or money, is a mistake," she said. "I would liken that to painting your house without redoing the shingles."

Still, it could be worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers are about 50 percent more likely to lose their jobs in the last several weeks of the year. One warning sign of fiscal trouble, said consultant Cynthia Shapiro: drastically downsized holiday parties.

Pat Beall writes for The Palm Beach Post.

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