Jumping Into the Generational Mosh Pit

July-August 2020
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So much has been written in the past five years about generational marketing. It’s hard to get through the day without more stories about what to expect from Gen Z in terms of purchasing choices for cars, or how baby boomers and Gen Xers can work more effectively with millennials to motivate them to greatness. You’ve heard all of it, just like me. 

But here’s my question: “How can we work together effectively and maximize our intergenerational differences?”

Or, in the words of my psychiatrist friend Dr. Chris Kovell: “Don’t be afraid of the generational mosh pit!”

My husband used to work with Chris at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and since then we’ve had a recurring couples date with Chris and his wife Susan, both baby boomers. My husband and I are Gen Xers (so you know our generational positions, for context). 

Avoiding stereotypes about generations

We were recently out to dinner and started discussing intergenerational work dynamics — admittedly a heavy topic over food. The subject arose because we were at a local hipster restaurant that will remain unnamed. They pride themselves on having a great bartender and innovative food selection. For the record, they truly do have both, and we will go back. 

When Chris went to order a drink, he asked for suggestions. Our millennial waitress mentioned several options but said that he seemed the type who would “just prefer a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned.” Chris agreed that he loves a good Manhattan and ordered one. But after she left, he said, “Should I have ordered something different? Do I look like someone who would ‘just prefer an Old-Fashioned?’” 

We had some discussion about this and agreed we were reading too much into the waitress’ suggestion. Could she have really meant something so ageist? Did she know that Chris rides his bike everywhere, has better cardiovascular health than most 20 year olds, and has been eating a clean vegan diet since before it was even a hip thing to do?

As our conversation continued, I brought up an ad on news radio that I had heard a few months ago. In it, a clearly boomer or Gen X boss was bemoaning the poor work ethic of their millennial supervisees. I was shocked for two reasons. First, it was targeted to me. And second, while I have hired many millennials over the past 15 years, none of them had trouble working hard and contributing to the team effort. The ad insulted me and a lot of the people I have worked with.

Going back to Chris’s point, since we’re all working together, we need to get this right. And the first step is not buying into the stereotypes about each generation. For example, my 81-year-old mother — ironically and please don’t tell her, a member of the Silent Generation — is on Instagram and uses her mobile phone more adeptly than a boomer friend of mine who is 20 years younger. My dad, meanwhile, has warned all of us that we are forbidden to text him because “that’s not what phones are used for.”

Finding ways to work together

How does all of this apply in the work environment as well as when maintaining balance outside work? As a member of Gen X, sandwiched by two much larger generations (boomers and millennials), I can speak from experience in terms of running interference between the two. And I’ve been making sense of the Gen Z mindset of my children, which is more similar to my parents’ values in certain ways than you might imagine.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  • Step up to be a mentor. And don’t be too proud to be mentored by any generation. There used to be a directionality to mentoring, but this is no longer the case — and thankfully! 
  • Volunteer as a translator. When one generation suggests something a different generation doesn’t get, help to make the translation. Especially if you are from an in-between generation to the two who don’t see eye to eye, you have a good chance of helping them to find common ground. As an in-betweener myself, I have had some success in making translations that have helped each side to see the other’s point of view more clearly.
  • Friction can create breakthroughs. I currently work in a place that represents four generations. We all learn from each other and expect that our differences will bring about innovation. 

Achieving intergenerational harmony is possible — and it can even be rewarding. Go ahead, jump in and put the judgment aside. We all work better together, and in our business nonstop learning from peers of every age is invaluable.

photo credit: dylan nolte

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