Closing the Generation Gap Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

As a professional in my thirties, I didn’t want someone my mother’s age tagging along with me. Yet that was exactly what happened. It was also one of the best things that happened at the time.

Before establishing a career in higher education, I spent a few years in the insurance industry as a senior marketing consultant. My responsibilities involved serving and retaining larger business accounts. At the time, I had a lot of confidence in myself. I believed I could pick up new information quickly. I could also communicate complex information in a way others could understand—certainly a plus in the insurance industry.  What could possibly go wrong?

Experience Can Make the Difference

One day, my marketing manager asked me to take Lillian, an older marketing consultant, along with me on an account visit. I wasn’t comfortable having someone my mother’s age tag along. I also felt a bit threatened.

When we met with Don, the business owner, Lillian asked how his son’s basketball team was doing. She and Don continued for a few minutes with small talk—small talk that I thought was a waste of time. After I shared information on some new insurance rates, I felt like I had everything under control. But all of a sudden, Don stood up and almost shouted, “This meeting is over.” Clearly, his vocal tone and facial expressions suggested he was quite upset.

My heart was racing; I realized that I didn’t know how to respond. Then Lillian calmly asked Don if he really wanted us to leave. Silence. After an uncomfortable few seconds, Don sat down, we successfully finished our business and then went to lunch. Because Lillian had years of experience working with Don, she knew how to handle a situation—a situation that could have only gotten worse had she not been at that meeting.

Benefiting from an Intergenerational Partnership

Over time, I started viewing Lillian as a trusted mentor. She helped me stay clear of trouble on more than one occasion. Lillian started asking me for some of my ideas that could help improve services for some of her accounts. We had developed a good working relationship based on mutual respect. I think my manager had been pretty smart when she encouraged our intergenerational partnership.

After Lillian had retired, I was given the opportunity to lead one of the first cross-functional service teams in our company. Having worked with Lillian helped me to recognize that just because someone had different experiences or saw things differently, it didn’t mean they wouldn’t have valuable insights or other contributions they can make.

Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers

Over the last couple of decades, most all of us have become familiar with the different labels that are now attached to generational cohorts working side-by-side in the workplace—the young workers, the middle workers, and the older workers. Three of the most predominant generations are the Millennials (born between 1981 to somewhere near 2000), Gen Xers (born between 1965 and about 1980), and the baby boomers (born between 1946-1964).

I jumped on the generational bandwagon at the turn of the Millennium and read everything I could find that defined the different cohorts, discussed their similarities and differences, and offered suggestions for how these different groups could work together.

I started incorporating generational differences into my discussions in my small group communication classes. Soon I was giving presentations to businesses in the community and then partnered with a millennial student to give a presentation on generational differences at a diversity conference.

The Simple Truth from One Boomer’s Perspective

Thirty years ago, I was still considered a relatively young worker. What I thought I knew then was a whole lot more than I think I know now. Nonetheless, one thing I do know is that working across generations can be beneficial for all concerned when approached thoughtfully. Forget assumptions based on labels.  Find ways to bring people of all ages together for common goals. Foster respect – have people define what respect “looks like” to them.  Give people the freedom to learn from each other.

Thirty years ago, I had a wise manager who knew how to encourage an intergenerational partnership. It shouldn’t be all that complicated.

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